VTA bus drivers plan strike for Friday

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

The Vineyard Transit Authority is planning to strike on Friday, after negotiations with its parent company, Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI), collapsed.

The planned strike comes as the busy summer season starts to ramp up, with many workers and visitors coming to Martha’s Vineyard relying on the bus system as their primary means of transportation.

The announcement appears to be a last-ditch effort to force TCI to the negotiating table. “We don’t want to strike, but after five long years without a raise, TCI and VTA has done everything in their power to bust our union,” Richard Townes, a bus driver, said in a prepared statement. “We deserve a living wage and fair benefits, and we will settle for nothing less.”

Some of the major sticking points are health insurance and hourly wages. Townes said TCI’s proposed health coverage would have VTA drivers paying $2,000 a month for health coverage with TCI contributing $1,250, a plan Townes said is not realistic for drivers to pay.

Wages today start at $16.50 an hour. While TCI and the drivers agreed on a new $19.50 starting wage, they could not agree on the wage rate increases. TCI’s plan has a 10-year wage increase plan that caps at $27.06 — the drivers want to make it a five-year wage increase plan.

Townes’ hourly wage has been capped at $23.50 for the past five years. Drivers also have an IRA option through TCI, but no health insurance.

TCI’s final offer also includes a clause giving the VTA the right to essentially void the contract. 

“The union recognizes that the terms and conditions of this agreement may be affected by certain sovereign and contractual rights which the client may exercise. The company agrees to discuss the impact of any such changes or directives with the union prior to implementation and the union agrees to not hold the [TCI] responsible for a breach of this agreement for actions the client requires it to take which it could not reasonably avoid,” the contract reads.

In the days leading up to the strike, the bus drivers will be handing out leaflets to riders about the strike and how they can support the drivers by boycotting the buses, according to a press release from Amalgamated Transit Union states. The leafleting will take place in Edgartown at the Church Street bus lineup, and at ferry terminals in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.

On Saturday, a town hall meeting was held where a labor consultant assisting TCI heard from concerned drivers, their families, and members of the public.

A flyer posted on Facebook by Support Vineyard Bus Drivers, promoting “fairness in employment and safety on the road,” notified the community that despite seeking to avoid a strike by appealing to elected officials, neighbors, friends, and the company itself, the company’s negotiating tactics have “grown more outlandish by the day.” “As a result, we’ve been left no choice but to take action,” the flyer said.

A notification on the VTA website promises the authority will provide as much service as possible during the strike.

“As many of you have heard, there is a possible driver strike planned for this weekend. In the event of a strike, the VTA and our operating company, TCI (which employs the drivers), will do our best to provide as much service as possible. Please check our website & Facebook page often for updates on routes.”

The VTA will give priority to Routes 1, 13, and Tisbury Park & Ride, the website states. “However, we are hoping to provide service on at least 70 percent of our routes or more. There may be service during the day and reduced service at night. We are expecting it to be a dynamic situation and thank you in advance for your patience and understanding.”

In an email to The Times, VTA administrator Angela Grant said despite “hyperbole” and “other misleading statements” on the Support Vineyard Bus Drivers Facebook page, the VTA has 23 seasonal drivers and management personnel who will be driving in the event of a strike.

“It appears the ATU is interested in their bottom line and funding the salaries of the small army of non-Vineyard union officials who have been on the Island in the past six months, rather than what is best for the vehicle operators, our community, and our riders,” Grant said. “It’s clear the ATU never intended on settling the contract, rather use the name of our notable community to further a national agenda. The ATU had a campaign in place for our community and they will see it through to the end.”

She added the entire process has taken its toll on the community and claims of unsafe buses were untrue. 

“The VTA deeply regrets that the ATU has chosen to put their agenda ahead of the vehicle operators and residents of the Vineyard. I urge the ATU to allow all the operators to review the TCI offer and to allow all operators to vote not just to strike, but to fully review and vote on the offer. The VTA remains committed to delivering safe and professional transit service and will continue to provide as much transit service as possible to our neighbors and riders. The VTA has a responsibility to balance the budget and the interests of all of our partners that make our system a success, and we will continue to do that,” Grant said.

She also claimed the union has not allowed drivers to vote on TCI’s final contract — a claim Townes said is not true. Ever since TCI presented its final contract, Townes has been meeting with drivers to discuss the contract and has made himself available for whoever wants to discuss it. He said drivers have been unanimous in deciding not to accept the contract.

Townes told The Times that federal mediator Joe Kelleher told the drivers TCI would not come back to the bargaining table and would not negotiate further. 

“We’ve tried everything. They refuse to come back to the table,” Townes said. “Petitions, strike votes — they refuse.”

Townes said five or six full-time VTA bus drivers will continue to drive buses. The rest of the full-time drivers will go on strike. Drivers will be picketing at the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven, Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, and on Church Street in Edgartown.

In addition to support from many Island residents, Townes said the drivers have seen an outpouring of support from off-Island.

“I can’t think of anything else to do. It’s going to go as long as it needs to,” Townes said.

The drivers will meet Thursday, June 27, at 5:30 pm at the Barn Bowl & Bistro to talk about Friday’s strike and inform the public of what to expect.