Updated July 2
Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) drivers have entered the second day of a strike.
The number of drivers on strike has grown, according to driver Richard Townes with both full-time drivers and a part-time driver now holding up signs demanding fair treatment.
Picketers held a silent protest Saturday at the Church Street VTA stop in Edgartown.
Bruce Hamilton, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told The Times the picketers had gotten noise complaints from the owner of the gift shop located near the VTA stop. “Our intention is not to hurt the business,” Hamilton said.
Despite one of the replacement drivers for the VTA hitting a telephone pole on Church Street, causing minor damage, Hamilton said, the drivers are still seeing lots of support from the community. The union is in contact with federal mediator Joe Kelleher, and is still trying to set up negotiations with Transit Connection Inc (TCI).
“We’ve been communicating through Kelleher,” Hamilton said. “We’re willing to make more compromises.”
Drivers began picketing Friday morning outside the Vineyard Haven terminal. The Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) drivers announced their intention to strike earlier this week.
Stop & Shop workers donated water for the drivers and took orders for food, even as some commuters and visitors climbed aboard buses being operated with seasonal drivers and managers.
Drivers are fighting for affordable health insurance, better hourly wages, and better overall workplace treatment.
Current benefits for drivers include an IRA option through TCI, but no health insurance. In their final proposed contract, Transit Corporation Inc. (TCI), the driver’s parent company, proposed health coverage that would have VTA drivers paying $2,000 a month for health coverage with TCI contributing $1,250, which many drivers feel is unrealistic for them to pay.
The drivers and TCI agreed on a $19.50 starting wage — a $3 bump from the current starting wage — but could not agree on the wage rate increase. 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.
The hourly wage of Richard Townes, one of the VTA drivers leading the charge, has been capped at $23.50 for the past five years.
TCI’s final offer also includes a clause giving the VTA the right to essentially void the contract, which drivers say defeats the entire contract’s purpose.
Drivers were chanting for people to support the union and not cross the picket line, as some people driving by in cars honked in support. Darren Morris, a manager from TCI, could be seen driving one of the buses.
There was a police presence in Vineyard Haven, where drivers began picketing at 8 am. Drivers were told if they block traffic, they would be arrested.
Townes said despite continued bus service, the VTA is strained — 24 drivers are taking part in the picketing, and more are expected to join in the evening.
“They say they have plenty of people, but why do they have managers driving?” Townes said after seeing Morris behind the wheel.
Angela Grant, administrator for the VTA, sought to explain why a negotiating session had been canceled on the transit authority’s website.
The union and drivers were set to meet with TCI at 4 pm in the second-floor meeting room at the SSA building in Vineyard Haven to continue negotiations, but Hamilton told The Times that Greg Dash, an outside labor negotiation consultant who is assisting TCI, informed the union and the drivers there would be no further negotiation talks because the drivers went on strike.
“We hope that when the two parties meet again, the union puts the best interests of all bargaining unit members and our community in front of their own agenda, and an affordable option is agreed upon,” Grant wrote.
Townes said that because of the strike, drivers still operating buses have been forced to log more hours.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) designates hours of service for property-carrying and passenger-carrying drivers. Under the passenger-carrying rules, VTA drivers may drive a maximum of 10 hours after eight consecutive hours off duty. They also can work only 60 hours in a seven-day period.
“One of the major things we are fighting for as bus drivers at the VTA is safety. We believe some of the drivers work way too much to be considered safe,” Townes said. “So how many hours a week are these people working? The sad thing is the VTA won’t get punished for overworking their drivers. What will happen is the drivers will get punished and lose their CDLs If caught working too many hours. We need a contract and the union to protect these drivers from themselves. Because the VTA has no standards and will use us as pawns till we are no longer useful.”
It wasn’t only drivers picketing. Cheri Cluff, a teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, was out holding signs that say “Vineyard Bus Drivers on Strike.” Cluff is a proud member of the Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
“I’m out here to show support for bus drivers. They have the right to fight for a contract,” Cluff said. “As a teacher, it’s important to show my students how to take action … it’s both for these workers and future generations.”
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, sent support in a video on Twitter. “VTA bus drivers deserve a living wage and fair benefits for the work they do. The strike that’s starting today could have been avoided,” Cyr said.
Drivers got a similar voice of support from state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, who also posted a video on Twitter.
“I’m with you, I support you, and we’re all with you in this fight,” Fernandes said in the video.
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III is also standing with VTA bus drivers. “Standing with the @ATUComm bus drivers of Martha’s Vineyard in their fight for fair wages, quality healthcare, and workplace protections. Time for workers to get the respect and dignity they have earned,” Kennedy wrote on Twitter.
Out front of the Oak Bluffs SSA terminal, taxi drivers told The Times it was business as usual, and there was no noticeable increase in taxi ridership. Several taxi drivers said they support the VTA drivers.
Ediberto Belen, a taxi driver for Admiral Taxi, said he wants to see the drivers get what they deserve. “Bus drivers need a big raise. It’s not enough to make a living on Martha’s Vineyard,” Belen said.
Alejandro Carreno, a part-time VTA driver, said he supports the picketing drivers, but will not join them for fear of losing his job, which he started a month ago. “I hope they find a solution soon, and a happy ending,” Carreno said.
Roland Goulart, who has been driving for the VTA for more than 20 years, said he and his peers have seen a tremendous outpouring of support from the community. He said he’s done with the “abuse” and “faulty equipment” from the VTA.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Goulart said, adding that he will not return to bus driving if they don’t get a contract.
Jason Chalifoux, another longtime VTA driver, said people have been reaching out to him to ask how they can help, even offering rides so people don’t use the bus system during the strike.
“The support has been amazing,” Chalifoux said.
In Edgartown, it was business as usual for the buses at the station on Church Street, where some people waiting for the bus didn’t even realize there was a strike going on. A couple from California told The Times they respect the drivers but “don’t have a choice” but to take the bus because they had to catch a ferry.
Cary Rosoff said not knowing about the strike puts his wife and him “in an awkward position” because, although they respect the drivers and their needs, the cost to take an Uber or taxi every day is too expensive.
“It would be one thing if we needed to just get to Stop & Shop to buy some groceries, but we need to catch a boat,” Rosoff said.
Rosoff said the Island is presented to tourists as a pedestrian-centered location, and off-Island visitors are encouraged to leave their cars at home and instead utilize public transportation.
“It’s cheaper to take the bus, and it’s better for the environment, but if we had known there was a strike, we would have maybe considered bringing a car,” Rosoff said.
Drivers were not picketing at that site because they’re planning to move to different locations throughout the day.
Seasonal drivers on the Edgartown route told a Times reporter buses are running normally during the day, but “may have trouble keeping up during the night.”
One seasonal worker checked the posted bus schedule as he waited for his No. 1 bus to arrive. He said he works at the Atlantic, and relies on the bus to get to and from work and his place of residence. “Please continue to help us, otherwise we won’t be able to get to work,” he said.
Dolores Borza, owner and operator of Homegrown Tours, a Vineyard sightseeing and shuttle company, said she will be helping get people around during the driver strike. “I want to support our drivers. I know people need to get to work, to the doctor, and other important places,” Borza said.
Borza will be traveling from bus stop to bus stop in her Homegrown Tours bus. She said she is hitting various down-Island stops, and will not be traveling up-Island because she said it would not be efficient to drive such a distance. Borza is accepting donations for rides.
“They [drivers] work really long hours — to the point where it’s unsafe for them and passengers. They need better pay, they need benefits, and they deserve better treatment,” Borza said.
“Driving can be just as demanding as physical work; it is exhausting.”
Reporter Lucas Thors contributed to this report. Update includes more details from the union and VTA.