The Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) full-time drivers walked off the job Friday morning for a strike that shows no sign of ending, headed into the busy Fourth of July weekend. The VTA is filling in with seasonal drivers and managers of the authority.
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 affordable health insurance, better hourly wages, and better overall workplace treatment.
Over the weekend, picketers moved to different VTA bus stops around the Island holding signs, handing out pamphlets, and chanting at passersby with information on the strike.
The union met with federal mediator Joe Kelleher Monday afternoon, and is waiting to hear back from him — despite the driver’s parent company, Transit Connection Inc. (TCI) ending communication with the union.
“TCI is refusing to meet with us,” Bruce Hamilton, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), said.
“We’ve been communicating through Kelleher … We’re willing to make more compromises.”
Current benefits for drivers include an IRA option through TCI, but no health insurance. In their final proposed contract, TCI, the driver’s parent company, proposed health coverage, which many drivers feel is unrealistic for them to pay, that would have VTA drivers paying $2,000 a month for health coverage, with TCI contributing $1,250.
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 Townes, one of the VTA drivers leading the strike, 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 purpose.
In a press release Monday, Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrator Angela Grant dispelled several reports circulating about the VTA. She called the ATU a “powerful off-Island union with an agenda that has shown little regard for our community and the riders of our transit system,” and said they have spread “misinformation.”
The bus service will operate 85 percent of scheduled service during the day, according to Grant, with reduced service later at night on some routes. The VTA expects scheduled service to be back to 100 percent on July 4.
According to Grant, all operators are correctly licensed and credentialed, and not all vehicles require a commercial driver’s license (CDL). In addition to buses undergoing multiple inspections during the year, drivers inspect their buses each morning before operating them.
Grant also said the ATU’s counteroffer would be financially unsustainable, and would require the VTA to implement a “devastating service cut” of 50 to 60 percent of the existing services. “A wage increase was in the future budget planning before the off-Island union was brought in and legally froze the wage scale,” Grant said in the release.
“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 our partners that make our system a success,” the release reads.
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.”
Drivers have received an outpouring of support from the community. Stop & Shop workers, who were recently on strike themselves, donated water for the drivers, and took orders for food. Nurses and teachers stood with drivers while they picketed. Others, passing by in their cars, honked in support for the picketers. Taxi cab drivers and tour bus companies also gave their support to drivers.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III voiced their support for the VTA 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.
In the middle of his shift, 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.
While the strike continues, passengers who depend on the bus system must weigh whether to take the bus or find an alternate mode of transportation.
Wayne Kellum is a Mattapoisett resident who visits the Island several times in the summer, and uses the bus system to get around. “I’d like to see this thing resolved,” Kellum said. “It breaks my heart to see them walking around with signs.”
Roland Goulart, who has been driving for the VTA for more than 20 years, said he’s done with the “abuse” and “faulty equipment” from the VTA.
In an effort to help people get where they want to go, Goulart transported Kellum and other people around the Island free of charge. He said since Friday he has driven 250 miles and transported 28 people to different Island locations, some as far from the ferries as Aquinnah.
“I don’t mind doing it. I don’t care what it costs, it’s my car, it’s my fuel, I’m just offering people a ride … it’s something I’ll continue to do,” Goulart said. “I feel for them. They’re caught between the strike and not wanting to cross the line.”