Union-busting lands on Martha’s Vineyard’s shores

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Once upon a time in America, there was an 11th Commandment that declared, “Thou shalt not scab!” Then, many had read novelist Jack London’s definition of a scab, which ends: “Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family, and his class.”

But not only has Jack London (1876-1916), once one of our most read and influential authors, been relegated to obscurity by our ever evolving culture, but the term “scab” has become similarly outmoded. In recent decades. It has been replaced with the euphemism “replacement worker,” which sounds somewhat akin to a “replacement part,” or “cog” in a modern industrial wheel.

And so, in answer to the question, “What did you do last summer?” today there are some who will answer, “I was a replacement worker on Martha’s Vineyard.” 

The distinguishing feature thus far of this year’s Martha’s Vineyard summer isn’t a visit by the Obamas or Clintons, but rather a strike by its bus drivers.

I have been a respectful and admiring summer Vineyard visitor for many years, seeing a fairly close-knit, caring, and diverse community at work and play. In the off-season I have represented unions and workers as a lawyer for almost six decades. Upon my arrival on the Vineyard late in June this year, with the bus drivers’ strike imminent, I found myself on something of a “busman’s holiday.” What I found was deeply disappointing and disturbing.

I learned that early in 2015, about 40 Martha’s Vineyard drivers employed by Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI) sought to unionize with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), a union

of more than 200,000 bus drivers and related employees in the U.S. and Canada. ATU has locals in nearby New Bedford, Plymouth, and Providence.

For many years, TCI has had a contract with the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA), a public agency, to provide year-round bus service to the Island. TCI refused to recognize the union, notwithstanding its showing of majority support, so the union petitioned for and won an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The board certified the union as the employees’ collective bargaining representative, thereby requiring TCI to bargain with the drivers’ union. TCI declined to bargain, and instead went to federal court to challenge the election and the NLRB’s bargaining order. On April 13, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the election, and ordered TCI to the bargaining table. More than one year later, negotiations had failed to achieve agreement, even with the assistance of a federal mediator.

Concluding they had no other option, the drivers struck on June 29, as was their statutorily protected right. When they hit the bricks, TCI announced that it would cease bargaining with the union, which in and of itself is an unfair labor practice under federal labor law. In addition, it imported “replacement workers” for the strikers from afar, sequestering them in close quarters on the crowded Island.

Despite TCI’s continual flouting of the law, VTA, through its executive director Angela Grant, has gone overboard in supporting the company and vilifying the union. Grant has disparaged the union for being made up of “outsiders” to the Vineyard, overlooking the fact that TCI is Florida-owned, represented in negotiations by a Pennsylvania-based employer labor relations consultant, and has recruited and imported replacement workers from as far away as Puerto Rico. In addition, Grant has opined that the union’s efforts are simply directed at funding the salaries of its officials, and that it never intended to reach agreement but was simply advancing its “national agenda.” One would have hoped that the director of a supervising public agency in Massachusetts would have been interested in promoting labor peace and cooperation, rather than firing up hostilities. Instead, it appears that Grant simply wants to bust the union and drive it off the Island, since it threatens VTA and TCI’s absolute control over the working lives of the drivers.

By contrast, the Martha’s Vineyard community has lined up foursquare behind its bus drivers, many of whom have been transporting residents and visitors around the Island for more than two decades. And my observation has been that the union’s efforts have been spearheaded by a dedicated and committed group of rank-and-file members, with union staff simply providing technical assistance.

In addition, the union has received the support of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. William Keating, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy.

For its part, the union has recently offered to end the week-old strike if TCI agrees to submit the contract dispute to final and binding interest arbitration before a mutually agreed-upon third-party neutral arbitrator. TCI has rejected the union’s proposal, so the strike continues.

It is my hope that a fair and early resolution is achieved, and the Vineyard will be left with a result that will live up to its reputation as a unique corner of our country where sane and humane considerations and values usually prevail. Too much of the opposite has infected our country and its workplaces in recent days and years. Hopefully, the Vineyard will escape the same fate.

 

Jules Bernstein has advocated for workers’ rights for more than a half-century. He serves on the board of directors of Interfaith Worker Justice and the National Employment Law Project. He earned a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, an LL.M. in labor law from New York University School of Law, and a B.A. from Brandeis University. He is a member of the bars of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court.

5 COMMENTS

  1. As President of Local 1548 I am proud of the way the members have banded together to to fight for a fair contract. I am overwhelmed by the support the community has shown us. I am equally disgusted by the Administrator who has spend over $250,000 in taxpayer money fighting to keep the Union out. That money would have been better served in paying the drivers and improving service for the citizens of Martha’s Vineyard. Let me make one thing clear we are not going away.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Bernstein!! The only thing I’d add is that the VTA Advisory Board has seriously fallen down on the job. The board is supposed to exercise oversight over the VTA administration, but it has a hard time achieving a quorum and it hasn’t met since the strike started. Six of its eight members are appointed, one each, by the town boards of selectmen. In general the selectmen have not exercised much oversight over their appointees. There is much Vineyarders to do to pressure our elected officials to wake up NOW. And I’m told that VTA picked up the legal bills incurred by TCI when they challenged the NLRB ruling in court. That means that we taxpayers are paying the tab. Not acceptable. Support our VTA drivers!

  3. I’m sure that with the new technology on the horizon, ”self-driving” cars will be the norm. It will eventually be applied to buses. At that time, I’d expect the union to require ”featherbedding”. For those of you who never set foot off the island, the rail system used to be powered by coal locomotives. There was an engineer who drove, and a ‘fireman” who shoveled the coal from the coal car to the locomotive. With the advent of diesel locomotives, there was no longer a need for a ”fireman”. Rather than require the union members occupying those positions to train and upgrade to an engineer position, the unions made the railways continue to employee this people in the position of fireman, doing NOTHING. Just another factor contributing to the failure of private railroads.

  4. Only ten percent of the labor force in the US is unionized. Used to be a lot higher. If unions are really good for workers there would be much higher percentage. Union leaders have often enriched themselves at the expense of the rank and file and workers have decided not to join. Unions have raised the cost of production and labor is now being replaced by capital and will continue to do so.

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