Para-Transit Bus Drivers Overcome Local’s Inertia, Win Two-Week Strike

One thousand bus drivers won raises and other benefits after a two-week strike against four private companies that provide para-transit service to the elderly and disabled in New York City. The strike was led by members of the Drivers Coalition, a rank-and-file caucus that has been organizing for several years for better representation in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181.

Members remained unified until the strike’s end May 5. Workers ratified the tentative agreement by a 2-1 margin. Despite management attempts to hire scabs and threats that strikers would lose their jobs if they didn’t return to work, only a handful of drivers at one small company crossed the line.

To end the strike, the companies substantially increased their final offer of four percent annual raises for three years, according to Patrick Lorquet, a Drivers Coalition leader and member of the negotiating committee. They added: a $700 signing bonus, a 401(k) plan, a third week of vacation after seven years, three sick days, Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday, and the conversion of many part-time jobs to full time.

Most importantly, says Lorquet, drivers laid the “groundwork for future advances by demonstrating to the company that they would fight hard and stick together.”


Conditions at Atlantic Paratrans, the largest of the city’s para-transit companies, were rough. In August 2003, when the last contract expired, top pay for the largely immigrant workforce was $15 an hour. “Some drivers have been making that rate for six years,” said Matthew Huggins, a founder of the Coalition. Many others were closer to the starting rate of $10. Seniority was often ignored.

According to the Daily News, which did a lengthy expose of waste, mismanagement, and corruption in the para-transit industry, drivers are under exceptional pressure from the companies, which are paid by the city’s transit authority on the basis of a time-on-the-road system.

The payment system puts drivers under pressure and subjects passengers to erratic and late service. Since its beginning, the Coalition has reached out to the passengers frustrated by long waits, buses that never arrive, and frequent breakdowns. Many passengers expressed sympathy for the strike, in media reports.

Drivers at Atlantic began organizing in 2001 after Atlantic violated the contract by failing to pay drivers who showed up for work in the days after the September 11 attacks. Drivers claim that no representative from the local, a 14,000-member behemoth that represents mostly public school bus drivers, had been seen at the yard for years.


Frustrated with the poor contract enforcement and wages that lagged well behind other local transit workers’, members formed the Drivers’ Coalition and began publishing a newsletter. They charged that for years Local 1181 treated para-transit drivers as second-class citizens by refusing to hold union meetings, failing to file grievances when drivers were fired or denied overtime pay, and doing nothing to mobilize members in contract negotiations.

The drivers contacted the Association for Union Democracy in spring 2002. AUD conducted a series of workshops on rights and strategies for organizing in the union. The coalition was formed and drivers began to make progress.

In 2002, some drivers were ready to decertify ATU and go nonunion, while others wanted to have the Drivers’ Coalition represent them; a petition was filed at the NLRB. In response, the union held its first meeting for para-transit drivers in at least three years. Local leaders removed a timid steward and appointed the Coalition’s leader, Lorquet, who wasn’t afraid to file grievances.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Lorquet was later elected to a negotiating committee composed of four members from each shop.

Drivers were dealt a blow in February 2003 when Huggins, one of the Coalition founders, was abruptly fired from Atlantic for unsafe driving. It was an obvious attempt by the company to rid itself of a chief troublemaker.

Just months earlier, Huggins, who had a near-perfect driving record, received a small bonus from the company for safe driving. The union took his case to arbitration, where he was awarded reinstatement and full back pay in January 2004.

Huggins’s return further emboldened the increasingly militant drivers, who in January voted to authorize a strike. Fed up with the companies’ refusal to budge, drivers walked out on April 19.

The union provided strike pay of $150 the first week, $350 the second, and assistance at the negotiating table, but little more. No full-time organizer was assigned to the picket lines.

Local officials not only failed to make a persuasive case to the public, they made no case at all. Union officials did not make comments to the press throughout the course of the strike.

State Department of Transportation inspectors refused to cross the picket line, Teamsters brought food and donations, and Transit Workers Union Local 100 (which represents most of New York City’s transit workers) instructed members at another non-striking para-transit company to refuse overtime. Local 100 also lent the strikers its giant inflatable rat.

Was Local 1181’s indifference to the strike a missed opportunity to organize solidarity for and highlight what was clearly going to be a rare victory for labor?

Yes, but it’s worse than it appears. Local 1181 is seeking to organize the remaining non-union para-transit companies, including one which decertified the local a few years earlier. Two days after the strike ended, drivers at one of those companies voted to remain non-union rather than join Local 1181.

If Local 1181 had put some of its immense resources into organizing and reached out to the public, the union might have been able to convey a different message to the non-union drivers: in an industry that can’t be moved abroad, in a company that is reliant on public money and vulnerable to disruptions, in a city with a strong union tradition, workers have tremendous power and can win.

Carl Biers is director of the Association for Union Democracy