Tensions grow, union talks continue for VTA drivers

After years of legal back-and-forth, drivers still fighting for change.

Union negotiations between VTA drivers and their employer, TCI, continue to stall even after three years of legal battles. Pictured above are some of the drivers who have signed a petition seeking improved negotiations. — Courtesy Richard Townes

A group of Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) bus drivers delivered a petition to Darren Morris, general manager of Transit Connection Inc., the VTA’s private contractor, to demand a “fair contract and an end to years of stalling and union busting on the part of the company,” according to a letter from the drivers.

The petition, submitted on Nov. 12, was signed by 37 VTA drivers who are seeking health and safety improvements, wage increases, and improved management.

Attempts to join the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) have stalled over the past three years because of lengthy legal battles between the drivers and TCI. In April, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that TCI had engaged in unfair labor practices, and ordered TCI to negotiate with the drivers.

“Drivers are getting really frustrated,” Bruce Hamilton, International vice president for ATU, said in a Nov. 14 letter. “They voted democratically three years ago to join ATU, and the company has blocked us at every step of the process.”

Greg Dash, an outside labor negotiation consultant who is assisting TCI, told The Times there is a “degree of frustration” on both sides, especially with establishing the bargaining unit, which defines who the full-time and regular part-time operators are.

The drivers and TCI began negotiations this month, but the drivers feel talks have been anything but productive. On Nov. 16, after three days of negotiations, Richard Townes, a member of the VTA drivers’ council, told The Times things have not improved. “Their counteroffer was, ‘Here’s the manual. We’re doing everything exactly the same.’ No change on any of the benefits, holidays, sick time, vacations, pay. Not one thing was changed. They basically gave us the manual and said word for word, that’s our offer,” Townes said.

Dash said TCI did submit the manual that was exactly the same as the current one, but only to establish “a baseline.” The drivers submitted their offer, which included wage increases and improved benefits, at the end of September. Now with two established positions, both sides can work on a deal, according to Dash.

In an email, Edward Pigman, TCI’s president and CEO, told The Times the union demanded an immediate pay raise of 44 percent, annual pay increase of 3 percent every year thereafter, 35 hours of work guaranteed every week all year, up to 65 days of paid time off, and restrictions on preventing the use of onboard security video systems in disciplinary matters, in their September meeting.

Townes said he was in disbelief that Pigman, who attended negotiations, said the only reason he was there was because the National Labor Relations Board told him to be there.

In a phone conversation with The Times, Pigman said there is a finite amount of money that TCI receives from the Federal Transit Administration, the state of Massachusetts, local communities, and fare prices, which makes it challenging to meet the demands of the union.

“We’re looking to find a compromise where everyone can sit down and have an agreement. We don’t object to having an agreement, we just have to have an agreement that works,” said Pigman.

One of the drivers’ biggest complaints is the stalling tactics from TCI for negotiations. Dash said it’s hard to get people’s schedules to line up, especially with the end-of-the-year holidays.

“We are optimistic that we will be able to reach an agreement with the folks, but it’s a slow process at this point because we don’t have a contract to start with,” Dash said.

On Nov. 16, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Bourne, sent a letter to VTA administrator Angela Grant, offering his assistance in negotiation talks.

“Frankly, the stalling tactics used by VTA’s out-of-state subcontractor are antithetical to the values of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, where unions are recognized and transit workers are treated with respect. The residents of Martha’s Vineyard rely heavily on VTA for critical needs, and I believe we agree that negative impacts on these vital transportation services require an urgent response. As a starting point, VTA workers have identified issues including safe levels of staffing to avoid driver fatigue, fair scheduling practices, livable wages, and retirement security as matters that need the most immediate action. I am confident that you understand the importance of these concerns, and I respectfully encourage you to take immediate steps toward a resolution,” Keating said in the letter.

Grant could not immediately be reached for comment.

Townes said the drivers have asked repeatedly to meet sooner, but the next negotiation meetings are scheduled for Jan. 15, 16, and 17. Dash said TCI will send a complete collective bargaining agreement to the drivers beforehand, so they have time to review it.