Updated at 11:30 am
In a packed Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) building meeting room, members of the VTA advisory board voted for striking drivers and the union representing them to head back to the negotiating table with Transit Connection Inc. (TCI), the driver’s parent company — only after more than two hours of heated and tense discussion.
The board’s meeting room was filled with members of the public, town administrators, selectmen, VTA drivers on strike, TCI administration, VTA administration, and even two Edgartown Police officers. Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) live-streamed the meeting on the Support Our Bus Drivers Facebook page.
VTA administrator Angela Grant gave a slideshow presentation on the VTA’s funding sources: 33 percent comes from passenger fares, 29 percent from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, 18 percent from Island towns, 16 percent from the federal government, and 4 percent from rental incomes and advertising.
TCI CEO Ed Pigman gave a presentation on the drivers’ negotiation history. After a lengthy legal battle, the National Labor Relations Board ordered TCI to negotiate with the ATU. Negotiations began in September, but both sides have accused the other of stalling and being unreasonable. Drivers are asking for better pay, healthcare, and fair treatment.
The full-time bus drivers have been on strike since June 28, and have been given the support of presidential candidates and state legislators. Meanwhile, the VTA has operated its routes with seasonal drivers and managers, while eliminating some key services like the Medivan, which brings Islanders to off-Island medical appointments.
The union and the drivers have demanded to continue negotiations, but Pigman says TCI has given its final offer. As Pigman explained TCI’s final offer, which included wage increases capping out at $27 an hour and healthcare options, each of the striking drivers in the room silently stood up, turned their backs to the board, and held up picketing signs.
According to Grant, accepting the union’s most recent offer would decrease off-season shoulder service, eliminate the Medivan service, and reduce year-round full-time jobs, among other consequences. As Grant spoke, drivers again stood up in protest with their backs turned and signs raised.
Tisbury advisory board rep Elaine Miller was the first board member to speak. She said the responsibility of the advisory board was to determine the values, goals, policies, and company vision of the VTA.
“From my point of view, we as a board are not doing that,” Miller said, citing the advisory board’s infrequent meetings. “We are not doing what we need to do.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the board’s fourth meeting this year. The board usually meets four to six times per year, according to the VTA website.
“We’ve got to take care of the drivers,” Miller said. “There is a way to make it happen.”
Tensions were high between TCI and the drivers, but also on the advisory board.
Leonard Jason, Chilmark’s representative to the advisory board, got into a back and forth with Miller over how the board can solve the issue considering the strict and limited funding the VTA has in its budget. He said it came down to either cutting services or raising rates.
John Alley, West Tisbury’s representative to the advisory board, also said there was possible “criminal activity” going on with Aquinnah advisory board representative June Manning asking for a financial audit, and asked her to stand up.
Manning, who has been vocal in her support of the drivers, denied any criminal activity, and accused Alley of telling her to “sit down and shut up” at multiple meetings.
“Maybe you should,” Alley replied.
Alley later apologized for his comments.
There was palpable shock in the room as Richard Townes, one of the drivers on strike and a member of the union bargaining team, was speaking to the board, but was interrupted by Jason.
“Richard, I think you guys do a good job of running the buses — stick to that,” Jason said as several people gasped and booed.
Members of the public, town officials, and several drivers took turns offering solutions. Andre Bonnell, one of the drivers on strike, wanted to know why administrators received raises, but drivers were capped. “They hear us, but they’re not listening,” Bonnell said.
One of the most contentious issues was TCI’s outside labor consultant, Greg Dash. Several people demanded to know why he was hired, who hired him, and how much he has been paid.
Ann Sylvester, an Oak Bluffs resident, asked the board how much Dash was paid, but the advisory board, Grant, and Pigman did not have numbers.
Dash has been retained by TCI, and part of his bill is labor counsel, according to Grant. TCI received approval from Grant to hire Dash.
Brian Packish, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the selectmen, who have not taken an official stance or statement about the strike. Packish said he was troubled to see TCI submitting a “final” offer. He recommended the advisory board direct Grant to direct TCI to go back to the negotiating table.
“We have a fundamental problem here today, and that is no one is at the table negotiating,” Packish said. “We need a voice that says, ‘Go back to the table, TCI, back to the table, union.’”
Chilmark selectmen Jim Malkin and Aquinnah town administratorJeff Madison agreed. “You’ve got to do something to solve the situation,” Madison said.
The idea of binding arbitration, the process of having a third party go through VTA finances and resolve the dispute, was floated by Dukes County commissioner Leon Brathwaite. Drivers clapped and cheered before chanting, “Arbitrate, arbitrate, arbitrate,” but the advisory board was split.
Before the advisory board took its vote, Miller motioned for an amendment that would have TCI and the union enter binding arbitration, but the motion was denied after the board voted was split 3-3, with Manning, Miller, and newly minted rider community representative Carlton Crocker voting for arbitration, and chairman Alice Butler, Jason, and Alley voting against.
Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said his priority is the town of Edgartown. He added that the idea of cutting routes was unacceptable, and voters should decide on funding at town meetings. “I think we need to take a pragmatic approach to this,” Hagerty said. “Let the people decide.”
The Edgartown seat on the advisory board has been vacant since the sudden resignation of Louis Paciello on July 8. There is also a vacant seat for the disabled community representative.
Speaking to The Times after the meeting, Grant said she agreed with Hagerty. “Town meeting is the right thing to do,” she said.
Despite not getting binding arbitration, drivers called the meeting “a win.” Drivers gathered outside the VTA building after the meeting to discuss next steps. They plan to continue picketing and visiting advisory board members one-on-one.
Possible dates for TCI and the union to return to negotiations are July 22, 23, 29, 30, or 31, which are the dates federal mediator Joe Kelleher is available. The advisory board scheduled a tentative meeting for August 2, after TCI and the union meet.
Drivers planned to hold a rally Thursday afternoon in front of the Massachusetts State House, but canceled due to weather concerns.
Updated to add background on strike. — Ed.