Silicon Valley Bus Drivers Restored Community Rides for Free—By Taking Matters into Their Own Hands
With Covid cases surging in their ranks, bus drivers in Santa Clara, California, demanded to resume rear-door boarding, which is proven to reduce the risk of infection.
Management of the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) balked, even blaming the workers for getting sick. Pressure mounted from the leadership of Transit (ATU) Local 265, and from rider and community groups.
But it was rank-and-file bus drivers who forced management’s hand when they started planning to stop boarding at the front door whether the agency agreed or not.
Bosses prefer anything to allowing workers to run the company. On February 3, the agency announced that it would resume rear-door boarding.
COVID SURGE AT VTA
Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is where Covid claimed what was believed to be its first U.S. victim on March 6, 2020. (In fact, several February deaths in the county were later determined to be Covid-related.) By March 19, VTA had stopped collecting fares to reduce contact between bus drivers and passengers at the front door.
Rear-door boarding is a no-brainer during a pandemic. Bus drivers reported story after story of passengers fumbling to get their bills into the farebox or taking off their masks to chat. Boarding at the rear door created a safe distance between riders and the driver, protecting both.
Rear-door boarding also has a secondary benefit. Because the only farebox in a VTA bus is located at the front door, it meant the public would ride for free. At a time when many were calling for free public transportation, and some transit agencies in the U.S. and abroad had already eliminated fares, this additional shared interest attracted more community support for the union’s demands.
On August 1, however, claiming “We have done our part to protect our customers,” VTA resumed collecting fares at the front door. Little had changed to justify the move, other than the installation of what one bus driver described as a “janky plastic barrier” that did little to keep airborne microbes from finding their way from boarding passengers to the driver or vice versa.
VTA’s decision had serious consequences for transit workers. Only 15 had fallen ill with Covid before August, while riders boarded at the rear; 72 cases were confirmed from August through Christmas. One bus driver, Audrey Lopez, lost her life to Covid. The new year started off even worse, with more than 60 positive tests in January alone.
BLAMED AND PUNISHED
On Martin Luther King Day, Local 265 President John Courtney delivered a letter to management. Noting that the union contract guarantees the right to safe working conditions, Courtney invoked every member’s individual right to refuse to perform work made unsafe by the Covid surge.
He went on to request a series of protective actions, among them that VTA “cease the collection of fares and resume rear-door-only boarding.” Courtney also demanded an end to VTA’s punitive practices for workers who experienced Covid symptoms: if workers called in sick while waiting for test results, they were forced to use their vacation time for missed days, and many of those who tested positive were denied workers’ compensation.
Courtney alerted his allies in the Voices for Public Transportation coalition and the Blue Collar Task Force of Bay Area transit union leaders about the union’s concerns. The next day he met with the agency. Management blamed the workers for recklessly bringing the virus to the job. VTA’s Ken Blackstone told a local Fox station, “Most of the people contracting Covid-19 are doing so outside of work."
While VTA acknowledged that it was violating a new state law that required it to provide the union with detailed information on workplace Covid cases, it refused to grant the union’s demands for additional safety measures. It not only rejected rear-door boarding, but brought no alternative proposals to the table.
Courtney asked management, “What is the reason we board at the front door?” and waited through a full minute of blank stares before answering his own question: “It’s for the money.”
YELLED ‘BANANAS,’ WALKED OUT
Monica Mallon, an organizer with the Voices coalition, had already reviewed VTA’s finances and found that it had so much unspent money left over from emergency transit operating funds it received from the CARES Act that it would not miss the relatively small amount it collected in fares.
The next day was the regular monthly meeting of VTA’s joint labor-management Safety Committee. Management did not acknowledge the Covid surge, and instead wanted to talk about old business that was not related to the pandemic at all.
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“We moved the meeting out of order,” said safety steward Anne Marie Ruiz. “Then Frank Poso, a mechanic, yelled ‘Bananas!’ and on his signal we all walked out of the meeting in protest.”
Ruiz summed up management’s attitude: “They care more about $2.25 than they do about our lives.”
The union escalated its pressure campaign with press interviews blasting the agency’s claims.
‘INTO OUR OWN HANDS’
Meanwhile, rank-and-file bus operators were already voicing their own idea: we drive the buses, and we have the power to stop opening the front door.
So a group of workers organized a meeting, and invited community groups from the Voices coalition to join them.
“It’s come to a point where the drivers need to take matters into our own hands,” said one longtime bus operator. “We’ve been patient, we’ve tried to work with VTA, and look what it’s got us now.”
A newer operator said many of her co-workers felt that the agency didn’t care about drivers. “I can find quite a few people who will be willing to move to rear-door boarding without VTA’s approval,” she said, and vowed to raise the idea with co-workers at her yard.
One rank-and-file driver posed a question to the community groups: “How can all of you support us?”
As a next step, the community groups began drafting a letter to management supporting the union’s demands. The letter was submitted on February 1 by the South Bay Labor Council with 30 groups signed on. The local NAACP also submitted its own letter.
Malcolm Flint, a local volunteer organizer with the Sunrise Movement, convened supporters to plan an action at VTA’s headquarters. Posters were designed and plans laid for speakers, a car caravan, and press and social media
The action was set to coincide with the birthday of Rosa Parks on February 4, celebrated nationally as Transit Equity Day. But the day before, as word got back to management that workers and the community were mobilizing for collective action, the union suddenly began to make headway in its negotiations.
On the morning of February 3, Courtney spoke with the VTA’s acting general manager, Evelynn Tran. “She seemed to have heard that the drivers were preparing to take safety actions on their own behalf,” Courtney said. “I persuaded her that it was best to err on the side of safety.”
That afternoon, VTA announced that it would restore rear-door boarding and suspend fare collection.
VTA could still try again to resume fare collection and front-door boarding before it is safe to do so. As talks continue over the criteria for ending rear-door boarding, the group that had been organizing the demonstration at agency headquarters decided to delay, but not cancel, its planned action.
Courtney noted that the biggest outcome of the fight, beyond VTA’s concession to restore rear-door boarding, was that Local 265’s 1,500 members “have just seen with their own eyes how important it is to be unified within our union, and to have the support of other unions and the community to win what we need.”
Richard Marcantonio is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit civil rights and economic justice advocacy organization. He is a co-founder of the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition, and a participant in the Blue Collar Task Force.