Updated June 24
About 50 people showed Saturday for a town hall meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to hear from VTA bus drivers about the potential for a strike.
The drivers and their union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), have been trying to get Transit Connection Inc. (TCI), the drivers’ parent company, back to the negotiating table.
This meeting comes as the Island’s busy tourist season is heating up.
By law, the VTA must hire a private company to operate service.
Earlier this month, at the last negotiating session between the two sides, TCI made a final contract offer.
Though it lasted for just a little more than an hour, the meeting became contentious at times. When Greg Dash, a labor consultant assisting TCI, said, “I’m in favor of unions,” someone in the audience shouted back an obscenity.
The meeting included a video compilation from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, and U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, all voicing their support for VTA drivers.
Warren, a Democratic candidate for president, said in the video that despite the idyllic landscape and picturesque beaches, life for many Islanders is very hard.
She said the cost of living is on average 60 percent higher than the rest of America, yet wages fall far short of the national average.
“That’s why I am proud to stand with you in your fight for a good contract,” Warren said. “Shoulder to shoulder, that’s how people do this. Unions built America’s middle class, and unions will rebuild America’s middle class.”
Markey said the VTA drivers are sending a powerful message, not just to workers on Martha’s Vineyard but to all of Massachusetts, that unfair tactics at the bargaining table will not go unconfronted. “I stand with you in this fight, 100 percent,” Markey said.
Keating also expressed his unwavering support of drivers, saying that “safe, reliable VTA for the residents of Martha’s Vineyard begins with safe and reliable working conditions. This is what you have been fighting for since 2003.”
Keating said that VTA drivers should be able to support their families and themselves without having to work 60 hours a week and waiting five years for a pay raise.
“We cannot allow an out-of-state contractor to put his profits ahead of the workforce and the residents of the Island,” Keating said. “I encourage the VTA contractor to come back to the table in good faith.”
The video ended with a clip of a group of protestors holding signs saying, “No Vineyard visits till this contract is settled.”
Bruce Hamilton, vice president of ATU, said the VTA drivers who work hard to keep the Island moving deserve a decent living wage, and a voice at work that will be heard.
If a contract is not negotiated soon, Hamilton said, it may come time to join together in solidarity with other regional transit authorities across Massachusetts. “It might soon be time to do some radical stuff,” Hamilton said.
He highlighted the immediacy of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging the use of public transportation, and cited a “climate emergency” that may also require radical action.
Several members of the public spoke during the forum, including Sara Nevin. Nevin is disabled and counts on VTA buses to get around because cabs are so expensive, she said. She appreciates the independence that the bus service provides.
Ginnie Diamond said that in the event of a strike, the VTA drivers need people to join the picket line, support striking families, and be prepared.
Jerry Fishbein, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said it is unconscionable for a negotiation to go years without a contract. He said if it comes to it, he brought picket signs to the meeting for drivers and Vineyarders.
Roland Goulart, a VTA driver for more than 20 years, said he was born on the Island, and has lived on the Vineyard all his life. Now 78, Goulart said he hasn’t had a raise in five years, and is tired of TCI putting money before its workers.
He said that TCI president and CEO Ed Pigman believes a cost-of-living increase should not apply to Martha’s Vineyard bus drivers “because they chose to live there.”
“I didn’t choose to live here, I was born here. I’m going to die here,” Goulart said.
Pat Harris, wife of one of the VTA drivers, said no progress has been made in negotiating a fair contract, and she would like to “see the proprietors sit down with workers and be sincere, not put up an act.”
“If you really are doing this in good faith, you should have worked something out by now,” Harris said.
Another driver of 19 years asked, if there are so many regional transit authorities unionized in Massachusetts, “Why not us?”
He said the VTA drivers have tried to advocate for themselves, but TCI has yet to engage in real and meaningful dialogue. “They hear us, but they don’t listen,” he said.
David Heller, a field organizer for ATU, notified the audience that cards would be available at the front door with instructions on how to leave a comment on the VTA website, or get in touch directly with VTA drivers.
As the meeting commenced, drivers gathered to hold a private meeting to discuss further action.
After getting up from their seats, some of the drivers and their families yelled “Strike!”
On the way out of the cafeteria, Goulart said he thinks the only possible solution is a strike, because TCI has “too much power” over the lives of many workers here on the Island, and they don’t use that power to “help out people that actually need it, they use it to get more money.”
He said the meeting was a “slap in the face” to VTA workers, and although he was happy members of the public could make it, he said he would have liked to see more VTA board members present.
“We just want to be treated fairly, and we want our voices to be heard. I love my job, but if TCI is going to keep stalling, we are going to need to do something,” Goulart said.
Updated with more details after first posting on June 22.