Aquinnah encourages arbitration for VTA contract

Selectmen say drivers deserve a livable wage and fair treatment.

VTA driver Katharine Kavanagh and VTA advocate Mitzi Pratt say the administration refuses to engage in good-faith arbitration. — Lucas Thors

Striking Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) bus drivers met with Aquinnah selectmen Wednesday asking for support as they attempt to get the VTA to go to arbitration to settle their contract dispute.

The request comes as drivers, who began striking against unfair treatment and poor wages in June, continue to strike with little response from Transit Connection Inc. (TCI), the company that hires the drivers, or the VTA. 

At the meeting, selectmen reviewed fliers circulated by the VTA administration and the VTA drivers’ union.

Town administrator Jeff Madison said he initially had been contacted by selectman Juli Vanderhoop about writing a letter in support of the drivers’ union, but he did not have enough information to write an effective letter advocating the pros or the cons.

Since then, Madison said, he has been in contact with the town VTA board member, June Manning, as well as with VTA administrator Angela Grant. 

“Obviously there are conflicting opinions on both sides,” Madison said. “I listened to [Grant] for some time, and her comments, strangely enough, disagreed with what June had told me.”

Manning was sitting in the audience, and said, “I find it odd that she [Grant] sent a letter to you, but as a board member I didn’t receive that.”

Madison said Grant told him that if the drivers’ demands are met in full, the entirety of transit service to Aquinnah would be cut during the off-season.

VTA driver Loretta May asked why the buses need to run so late in Aquinnah in the off-season, despite the negligible amount of Islanders who use the service that time of year. “That’s where a lot of the cost is going that could be cut,” May said.

Mitzi Pratt said the central issue in the dispute is that VTA administrators and TCI are unwilling to enter into arbitration with drivers. “They won’t talk to us, they won’t listen to us, they won’t answer their phones,” Pratt said. 

VTA driver Katharine Kavanagh said one condition of the VTA administration’s offer is that they can cancel the drivers’ contract at any point.

“That’s not how a contract works. You sign a contract, that’s it,” selectman Gary Haley said. 

“All we want is a neutral party arbitrating, not the VTA board, not Angie Grant,” Kavanagh said. 

“Aquinnah and Aquinnah’s representatives have been wonderful to us — they have listened to us, and we are deeply grateful. Unfortunately, we cannot say that about other towns.”

Pratt requested the letter be sent to VTA administrators ahead of the 5 pm VTA advisory board meeting, which took place as The Times went to print on Wednesday.

She also asked one of the selectmen or the town administrator to be present at the meeting.

“I would like the selectmen to send a more powerful message,” Pratt said. 

Madison agreed to attend the meeting at VTA headquarters, and to write a letter encouraging the VTA to immediately enter into negotiations with an arbitrator.

Vanderhoop said Aquinnah relies on the bus system year-round, and suggested the town is “in crisis” as a result of the strike.

“We do not want to be cut out — Aquinnah has always been the first to be cut out. All of our businesses here are seasonal, and we require the service of the VTA.”

According to a press release from the Amalgamated Transit Union, VTA drivers, union members, and supporters will be at the Massachusetts State House on Thursday to hold a strike rally and call for a state audit and investigation into the authority’s financial records, including all dealings with TCI.

In other business, Madison said the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head continues to work on the planned casino on Black Brook Road, despite an order issued by a federal court judge.

Workers have most recently installed rebar and footings for the building’s foundation, according to Madison. “That is in total contravention of the injunction the federal court issued two weeks ago,” Madison said.

Madison said Aquinnah building inspector Lenny Jason served the tribe with a cease and desist order to stop all construction and further building efforts on Tuesday.

“We will see what happens next,” Madison said. “The tribe has contemptuously ignored the court order to this point.”