With strike over, VTA drivers head back to work

After a monthlong strike, drivers accepted a contract with their parent company, Transit Connection Inc.


Updated July 31

After years of legal battles and months of negotiating, Vineyard Transit Authority bus drivers and the union representing them, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), accepted an agreement with the driver’s parent company, Transit Connection Inc. (TCI) — ending a strike that began one month ago.

Drivers gathered at the Barn Bowl & Bistro Sunday to cast ballots to ratify the agreement reached with TCI last week. Polls were open from 11 am to 4 pm. Of the 48 eligible drivers, 32 voted yes, and only one voted no.

The agreement, reached last week, includes the highest wage rate increasing by 8.5 percent, from $23.50 to $25.50, starting August 1, 2019. The top rate will then increase again on August 1, 2020, to $27, with the final increase occurring August 1, 2021, to $27.50. The starting wage rate for new hires will increase by more than 18 percent, from $16.50 to $19.50 on Aug. 1, 2019. The starting wage will then increase to $20 on August 1, 2020, and then increase to $20.50 on August 1, 2021. The previous 13-year completion and 14-step progression to achieve the top rate has been reduced to a seven-year completion and eight-step progression. Seniority will also be recognized when drivers select routes, and drivers will be paid double their hourly rate for shifts on holidays. Drivers not working on holidays will still be paid their regular rate. The deal also includes layoff protections.

The top $27.50 wage will be among the highest in Massachusetts. The Brockton transit authority’s top wage is set at $28.34 per hour, the Cape Cod transit authority caps at $24.18, and the Nantucket transit authority caps at $21.

The road to the contract settlement has been a long one. In January 2015, TCI declined to recognize the union as the drivers’ representatives. The National Labor Relations Board then supervised an election for the drivers on joining the union. The labor board required TCI to give the union a list of drivers who could vote, and their addresses. The union sent out envelopes, complete with campaign literature, and information on a March 2015 meeting prior to the vote.

Issues arose several days after the 21-18 vote denying the union, when 22 of the 39 envelopes were returned, marked with “not deliverable as addressed,” according to a 2017 court report. 

The 39 addresses TCI gave to the union were mostly residential address obtained from employee driver licenses, not mailing addresses. Living on the Island, the majority of VTA drivers use a Post Office box to receive their mail. When the union sent out the envelopes, many came back as undeliverable. After the failed vote and the undelivered envelopes, the union filed an objection with the labor board, which, after a hearing, vacated the March voting results and ordered a new election. 

A second election held in September 2015 resulted in the drivers voting in favor of union representation, 17-14. After the vote, however, TCI filed an objection to the election results, saying two pro-union drivers threatened to “kill” a third driver if he didn’t vote in favor of the union. The exchange was caught on video aboard one of the VTA buses. Another hearing was held in October 2015, where a hearing officer concluded the statements “were made in jest, arising out of a conversation amongst friends.” 

Even though the September election results were allowed to stand, TCI refused to bargain with the union. This forced a review of the union’s certification. The union then filed an unfair labor practices charge against TCI. The resulting legal battle dragged on for several months until March 2016, when the labor board certified the union as the drivers’ representatives. The union then demanded to bargain with TCI in August 2016, but TCI failed to respond, resulting in another long courtroom battle.

In April 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that TCI had engaged in unfair labor practices when it refused to bargain with the union, and ordered TCI to negotiate with the union. The 11th Circuit had jurisdiction over the case because TCI also conducts business in Florida.

The deal comes four weeks into the strike and a week after a contentious meeting between the drivers and TCI at a VTA advisory board meeting. It was at that meeting that the VTA advisory board voted to have TCI return to the negotiating table.

“After 16 years of struggle, five years of attempted union-busting, and a year of frustrating negotiations, the ATU local VTA 1548 bargaining committee and Transit Connection Inc. (TCI) have reached a tentative agreement,” a post on the Support Vineyard Bus Drivers Facebook page states. “VTA strikers should be proud that they’ve achieved significant progress over the company’s ‘last, best, and final offer,’ and secured their first collective bargaining agreement in two decades.”

Richard Townes, one of the drivers, was disappointed the agreement took so long to reach, but was happy it is over. “Wish we didn’t have to go on strike to achieve it, but overwhelmed by the support we received from the community and the union. Martha’s Vineyard is is a very special place,” Townes said.

The drivers had support from elected officials, as well as presidential candidates, in their quest for a contract with the VTA and TCI. Island town leaders joined the fray, urging the VTA and TCI to settle the strike.

VTA administrator Angela Grant issued a statement after the agreement was reached. “Funding for the transit system is approximately 70 percent taxpayer money; the VTA is pleased the union came back to the table on July 2 with a much more reasonable wage expectation. The union’s original request maxed out at $34 per hour after three years of service, and we settled at $27.50 after seven years of service, which is providing a $2 to $4 immediate increase for all operators and a $4 per hour wage increase for our most senior operators over the duration of the 40-month contract. This is an affordable and sustainable agreement for the VTA to maintain the level of service our riders depend on. I understand that once the parties agreed on wages, all other pieces fell into place rather quickly,” Grant said, despite TCI giving its “final and best offer” and refusing to return to negotiations for much of the month of July. “The VTA would like to thank all of our drivers and riders who made the difficult decision to cross the picket line and support the Vineyard community; we understand how difficult it has been on some people. We would also like to apologize to all of our riders and drivers, as the VTA has a responsibility to ensure the future of public transportation on the Vineyard, and sometimes dealing with difficult situations in the short term is necessary for a favorable outcome in the long term. We look forward to putting this behind us, and working together to finish out the summer, with Illumination Night, the Agricultural Fair, and fireworks ahead of us.”

“I’m just happy with the outcome, and I’m just happy with the results,” Richard Townes said.

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, called to congratulate the drivers. “I want to congratulate the men and women bus drivers who fought for dignity, respect, and a fair contract, and thank the Island community that had their back along the way,” Fernandes later told The Times. “Now the work begins to mend fences, and for drivers and management to come together to advance a transportation system already known as a state leader in reliability and clean energy technology.”

The drivers received support from Fernandes, state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and federal lawmakers, as well as presidential candidates. But it was when local leaders, including selectmen from Aquinnah, Oak Bluffs, and Chilmark, got involved that the pressure mounted for TCI to return to negotiations.

Other unions, including the teachers association on the Vineyard, and the Mass. Nurses Association, showed solidarity with the Island drivers. On Friday, the nurses traveled to the Island and presented drivers with a $3,000 check for their strike fund.


Welcome back

Roland Goulart, one of the VTA drivers who headed back to work Tuesday, stepped off his bus to greet workers heading to their early shifts at the Vineyard Haven Steamship terminal. It was one of the first bus routes of the day, and one Goulart has driven many times over the past several years.

Despite a few weeks off the job, Goulart wasn’t rusty at all. “Everything came back quickly,” he said. “It’s second nature.” 

Happy to be back at work, Goulart was excited to see some of the regulars he has picked up every day over the years. Some of the bus riders took a moment to welcome Goulart back to work. Scott Savoie, a physical therapist who takes the VTA every day, greeted Roland as he got on the bus at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority stop.

Driving the No. 3 bus to West Tisbury, Goulart made a couple of stops to fill up the bus. Along State Road, Goulart picked up a group of landscapers, whom he called “the nicest people.”

Each of the landscapers shook Roland’s hand and said, “Buenos dias.” Later, when Goulart dropped them off, he said, “Tenga un buen dia.”

The early morning routes are Goulart’s favorite because he gets to finish his shift in the afternoon, but also because the people are nice.

During the strike, Goulart offered free rides to people around the Island. In total, Goulart and others drove 1,568 people more than 3,400 miles. Goulart joked that on a map, he drove from Boston to San Diego, Calif., and almost hit Albuquerque, N.M., on his way back.

As drivers headed into work Tuesday, Goulart said things were a little tense at the VTA headquarters. A notice was posted in the drivers’ day room saying there had been “personal attacks,” but now was a time for reconciliation. Goulart said there were no personal attacks, but he agreed that it was time to move on and work together.

“I don’t know how things are going to go, but I hope it works out for the best,” he said.


Updated to add VTA news from the week. — Ed.