Bus Drivers Stand Up to Retaliation and Win First Contract

Strike authorization vote - people standing with arms raised.

Drivers unanimously voted to strike if needed to win a first contract. Photo: ATU.

This is part two of the story of how bus drivers in Alexandria, Virginia, finally unionized after 35 years of trying. In part one, the workers withstood a barrage of antiunion pressure and won their election 97-13. But they still had to bargain a first contract with the hostile company. Here’s how they did it. –Ed.

With its union-buster busted and the union victorious, management was stung and embarrassed. But led by a vindictive operations manager, DASH continued its antiunion campaign with a vengeance.

First came the firing of two key activists. Latonya Robinson had been perhaps the most indispensable leader during the organizing drive. Robinson, a single mother of two, coordinated the collection of many union cards and served as one of the union’s observers at the vote.

Two weeks after the victory, management announced she was under investigation for “serious infractions”—apparently so egregious that they allowed her to work a full month to cover the holiday vacation rush before they terminated her on trumped-up charges.

When a Union Leader Gets Fired

U.S. labor law is largely toothless. Unscrupulous employers often break organizing drives by disciplining or firing activists—knowing that the penalty will be minimal even if a fired worker manages to prove illegal retaliation.

That’s why Local 689 did much more than file an unfair labor practice charge when Latonya Robinson was unjustly terminated. Drivers built a campaign around it.

First, the union found Robinson another job at a unionized facility. Organizers stayed in close contact with her. They were “always very encouraging and enthusiastic and letting me know that the union was not giving up on me,” she said.

Robinson was popular—her firing struck a nerve. So the union circulated a petition calling for her reinstatement. A supermajority of drivers signed on.

The union kept Latonya close, inviting her to every union meeting and action. As far as the union was concerned, she was still a member.

“I trusted my co-workers,” Robinson said. “And when I saw that my name kept getting mentioned, I knew I hadn’t been forgotten. So I never gave up hope, and although it was very hard, I never became hopeless.”

To exhaust all channels, the union also contested the termination through the company’s phony grievance procedure. But the policy required Robinson to pay $100 before her case would be heard. Members used the opportunity to show Robinson they had her back.

Union leaders took up a collection—limiting donations to $1 per person—and raised the $100 from 100 drivers.

In public, in bargaining, and with local politicians, the union continually brought up Robinson’s reinstatement. It became a central plank of the campaign for fairness at DASH.

--John Ertl

The union’s other election observer was Yonas Aemiro, who anchored the sizeable group of Ethiopian immigrants. Not long after the vote, Aemiro had to travel to his homeland to be with his sick mother.

One way that DASH had retained immigrant drivers despite its low wages was by routinely allowing them to travel home for extended periods in excess of what the handbook allowed. Now suddenly the company decided to enforce the rules strictly. DASH fired Aemiro for job abandonment. The assistant operations manager told him that he had sealed his fate by deciding he “wanted to die a hero.”

Clearly the company was out for blood.

The terminations could have had a strong chilling effect—if the union couldn’t protect its top leaders, how could anyone else risk getting involved? To shore up drivers’ confidence, organizers set out to involve as many as possible in collective actions.

UNION STRIKES BACK

First came a contract survey. The union set a goal to talk to everyone, even people who had voted no. Bargaining committee members kept a running list of who still had to fill out a survey, and drove up the participation past 75 percent of the workforce.

The survey showed that two-thirds of drivers had to work overtime to pay the bills, and one-third worked a second job to get by. Nobody had anything good to say about the operations manager. These facts became useful talking points for the media and local politicians.

Writing down what they wanted to change helped drivers realize just how tired they were of doing the same work as their unionized counterparts in the metro area for much less. DASH drivers decided they would accept nothing less than equality.

The contract committee kept growing; 20 percent of the workforce showed up for a strategy meeting. Rising expectations steeled their resolve to act. Driver Alphonza “Big Al” Clements put it best: “Just by putting yes in that box doesn’t get you anything. We’ve got to fight now for the things we need.”

So the committee got to work turning members out in droves to union actions. At a city council forum, a sea of red union shirts occupied most of the seats. Drivers took the microphone one after another to speak out about unfair conditions.

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“That was a turning point,” recalled driver Warren Everett. “It showed us how many people were really serious about it.”

Union staff promoted the story to local media. It was exciting to see the story told publicly; the union bulletin board was soon crowded with articles. And as they opened their eyes to the broader labor movement, drivers also started sharing articles about other union fights.

Workers even started up their own text-message network on the Viber smartphone messaging app, where they updated each other instantaneously on campaign happenings.

Meanwhile the company’s opening economic proposal was a meager $1 raise—which it had dangled in front of workers before they ever organized—and a compression of the 20-year wage scale into 10 years.

A STROKE OF LUCK

The union wanted retirement funding equivalent to the public sector pension. Instead, DASH offered to restore the 2 percent year-end bonus it had taken away right before the organizing drive.

After five bargaining sessions, management was still holding out on standard provisions of good union contracts: discipline, the grievance procedure, and the union’s right to meet and sign up new employees.

The union had anticipated the chance of a strike. But as it happened, the drivers found their leverage greatly magnified.

The region was preparing to shut down most of Virginia’s commuter rail system for repairs. Thousands of local residents who commuted to D.C. every day would be relying exclusively on bus service all summer. For the drivers, Clements called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Further inflaming union members, DASH announced a plan to bring in temporary drivers for expanded summer service and subsidize their rent up to $1,500 a month—thereby paying temps more than the career workforce. “They’re basically admitting that their wages aren’t enough for people to make rent on,” said driver Tyler Boos.

‘FOR OUR KIDS’

At the strike authorization vote, the most senior driver, Marvin Falwell, gave an emotional speech. He said that although he was nearing retirement and wouldn’t personally benefit as much from a union contract, workers needed to strike for future generations of drivers: “We’ve got to do it for our kids!”

The vote to strike was unanimous. Unless management agreed to match regional union standards, drivers were ready to bring the capital’s commute to a standstill.

It was time to educate the riding public. Union activists spent a week handing out 10,000 flyers at the busiest rush-hour transit hubs. The news picked up the story. The city got worried.

“Riders would tell me that they depended on the bus and that they didn’t know what they’d do if we went on strike,” Boos said, “but they said they would find a way to get by if it meant we could win what we were fighting for.”

“DASH had an impeccable reputation in the community,” said Clements. “By getting the passengers behind us, they took a real hit.

“When the pressure started coming from the community on the mayor and on DASH, they knew we had them. A strike over a livable wage would have been a huge embarrassment.”

NEWFOUND PRIDE

Even so, management tried to get the union to settle for half a loaf. DASH presented a “final offer.” But the union knew it was in the driver’s seat and made its own final offer—take it or we strike. Management surrendered.

The deal accomplished all the union’s objectives. Workers won complete wage parity with public sector union members. The 20-year wage scale was compressed to seven years. Funding for retirement grew to match the public pension. Drivers won more vacation, sick time, holidays, and even retiree health benefits. Ratification was unanimous, 111-0.

“I can actually live like a human being now,” said driver Lorri Parker. “I don’t have to work 70 hours a week. I don’t have to live with a roommate anymore.”

One of the sweetest prizes was the reinstatement of the two fired activists. And to top it off, DASH let go the reviled operations manager who had fired them.

The new spirit of democracy was infectious. Nonunion clerical workers at DASH were inspired to take up a petition against an unfair firing in the office. The union did a group march on the general manager to deliver it.

“Before the union, I would see drivers from other companies and feel inadequate,” said Didier Balagizi. “I used to be embarrassed to wear the DASH uniform.

“Today, I am proud to work at DASH. I’m proud to be Local 689. I’m proud to be a bus driver.”

John Ertl is a field mobilization specialist for the Amalgamated Transit Union.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 485. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

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