VTA strike averted

VTA bus drivers picketing for fair treatment at a protest in August. In April, the drivers authorized a strike and have said they plan to hit the picket lines on Friday. — Gabrielle Mannino

Updated May 29

A strike by Vineyard Transit Authority bus drivers has been averted — for now.

Drivers met Thursday night to consider either going on strike or setting a date for one, but ultimately decided to wait. A VTA strike as Memorial Day weekend approaches could have wreaked havoc with a busy weekend on the Island.

The VTA warned its ridership about the possibility on its Facebook page Thursday night.

“As many of you have heard, there is a possible driver strike planned as soon as tomorrow,” the post stated. “In the event of a driver strike, the VTA and our operating company, TCI (who employs the drivers), will do our best to provide as much transit service as possible.”

The post said the VTA would attempt to provide service on 70 percent of its routes. “There may be service during the day and reduced service at night,” the post stated. “We are expecting it to be a dynamic situation, and thank you in advance for your understanding.”

Drivers authorized a strike in April, and have held informational pickets.

Bruce Hamilton, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, and Richard Townes, Vineyard Transit Authority bus driver, issued the following statement Thursday:

“The bus drivers of Martha’s Vineyard affiliated with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) have decided to postpone calling a strike. We make this decision with the hope that Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI), will begin negotiating in good faith at our upcoming session.

“We know firsthand how crippling a strike would be to our community, and always view striking as our last resort. We will continue to strive to reach an agreement with TCI, but can only make so many concessions while securing the living wage and fair benefits that our drivers and their families deserve. It is past time for TCI to step up and demonstrate they care for our community as much as they should.

“We will spend the coming days engaging with our community, riders, and local businesses to help them understand the situation and prepare for any disruption. Our community has been incredibly supportive of our cause, and our goal is to reach a resolution without negatively impacting their day-to-day lives.”

According to Hamilton, a spokesman for the union, the drivers are hopeful after TCI agreed to meet in the coming week. “It’s in no one’s best interest if anyone goes on strike — the community loses, the drivers lose,” Hamilton said. “We’re hoping they’ll negotiate in good faith.”

Talk of a strike comes on the heels of a recent strike by Stop & Shop workers that closed the Vineyard Haven supermarket and hampered the Edgartown store until that contract was settled.

The VTA drivers have struggled for years just to get to the point of having their union recognized. Now they say that TCI, the parent company, has refused to come to the table. For their part, TCI officials have said the drivers are asking for too much.

The two sides returned to the bargaining table Wednesday morning at the Tisbury Emergency Services Facility, but negotiations quickly deteriorated, as each side accused the other of stalling talks and giving unfair offers.

Before TCI and ATU sat down to negotiate, both groups held private discussions with each other and federal mediator Joseph Kelleher.

TCI president and CEO Ed Pigman, who was joined by TCI manager Darren Morris and negotiator Greg Dash, voiced his frustration with the union and its refusal to accept TCI’s proposed wage increase, which varies by year but caps at $24.71 per hour, a $1.21 increase from the current wage cap. The proposed wage increase would also start drivers off at $18 an hour, as opposed to $16.

“This is why there is no deal in this room today, because of this kind of crap. You should be ashamed of yourselves because of what you are doing to your own rank and file people,” Pigman said. “I’m personally fed up with dealing with all of you.”

Arguments ensued before Kelleher suggested ATU present its offer to TCI for review. TCI said it would need time to carefully review and respond to it.

Talks are scheduled to continue Thursday and Friday.

Updated with new information about negotiations.