VTA drivers will vote on union representation

Working conditions and pay are behind the organizing drive.

Vineyard Transit Authority bus drivers will vote on union membership. — File photo by Susan Safford

Vineyard Transit Authority drivers are scheduled to vote Wednesday, March 18, whether to form a collective bargaining unit represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest transit union in the nation.

Drivers will vote by secret ballot, and the outcome will be decided by a majority of those voting, not by a majority of those eligible to vote. If the drivers vote to accept Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) as their representative, the union will immediately begin work on a contract for drivers.

Richard Townes, a 19-year veteran of the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) who supports union representation, said about 35 drivers are eligible to vote. He said issues of pay, seniority, and grievance resolution are among the issues that prompted a union vote.

“The guys just want to have a voice in their work situation,” Mr. Townes said.

VTA drivers work directly for Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI), a national company that won the open bidding process to manage operations for the VTA.

Darren Morris, general manager of TCI, picked his words carefully in a phone interview with The Times. “We feel like it’s best to deal directly with our own employees,” Mr. Morris said.

In a memo to drivers dated Feb. 11, Mr. Morris used much more forceful language.

“The union can (and often does) promise employees the world, but can only give you what the company is able to afford,” Mr. Morris said. “The union’s demand to increase benefits could lead to a decrease in wages, or vice versa.”

Union shop

ATU represents employees of 13 other public and private transit companies in Massachusetts, including the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. Charles Ryan is the president and business agent of ATU Local 1548, with offices in Plymouth.

“If these employees vote for the union, my role is to hash out a labor agreement,” Mr. Ryan said.

He said if the union is certified, all drivers will be required to join and pay dues. “The dues are usually decided by the amount of members we have,” Mr. Ryan said. “Seventeen dollars a week is the current dues structure.” He said drivers who join at the time the initial contract is ratified will not pay an initiation fee.

In 2003, VTA drivers voted to join ATU, and union officials began negotiating a contract. But the negotiations dragged out more than a year. Under federal labor laws, the company and the union have one year to reach a contract agreement. If they cannot reach agreement, the process ends without forming a union.

“The company really dragged their feet in labor negotiations,” Mr. Ryan said, referring to the 2003 vote. “I don’t see that happening this time. We have other contracts with these people. We’re not the devil. I think they know that.”

Grievance procedure

Currently, a council meets several times each year to deal with issues brought forward by drivers, including working conditions, disputes over shifts, and questions about VTA policies and procedures.

“I think we’ve accomplished an awful lot over the last 10 or 11 years,” said Mr. Morris. “I think drivers have benefited greatly from us being able to talk to each other and resolve some issues. Things don’t always move at the pace people like.”

Mr. Townes views the management council differently, and thinks a union grievance procedure would work better.

“My last meeting there were 37 issues,” Mr. Townes said. “Out of the 37 issues, three or four were addressed. This is what the problem is.”

Mr. Townes said some drivers are unhappy with the TCI pay structure, which provides for stepped raises.

“There are 12 steps you can go through,” Mr. Townes said. “Once you reach that 12th step you’re done. I’ve been there 19 years; somebody that has been there 12 years gets paid the same.”

He also said seniority is an issue, when it is used to decide who is offered open shifts.

“There’s a policy, but it’s not followed,” Mr. Townes said. “It’s supposed to be by seniority, and it isn’t.”

Peter Herrmann, a retired teacher who drives for TCI, said he opposes forming a union.

“When I applied for the job, I was hired as a part-time driver, and I knew what the working conditions were,” Mr. Herrmann said. “I was very happy to go to work. Over the past five years, I have never had a problem.”

Mr. Herrmann said he feels TCI has always been fair and equitable. “I don’t need a union sucking more money out of my paycheck,” he said. “The federal government and the state government do a good enough job of that.”

Route to disruption

According to the VTA, nearly 300,000 passengers use the Island’s public transportation system each month during the peak summer season. During the winter, about 25,000 people ride the buses each month.

Mr. Morris said he is focusing on the coming election, and he doesn’t foresee any work stoppage that would affect bus riders.

“It’s certainly something we’re aware of; it’s a tactic that unions employ occasionally,” Mr. Morris said. “The first step is to see what happens in the election. I don’t think we’re at the stage we need to worry about some kind of work stoppage. It’s a good place to work, and we want to keep working on improving it.”

In his Feb. 11 memo to drivers, Mr. Morris was more blunt in outlining what could happen in the event of a strike.

“You will not be entitled to any pay or benefits from TCI (health insurance, etc.) while out on strike,” Mr. Morris wrote. “You could lose your job. If the union strikes over wages, benefits, or other working conditions, TCI would be free to permanently replace the strikers. This means that after the strike is over, strikers may no longer have their jobs.”

Vineyard Transit Authority General Manager Angela Grant did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.