By Dr. Felicia Kornbluh
The CCTA bus drivers’ strike may well have been settled by the time this issue goes to press. But even if it has, I think it is worthwhile to explain why so many people in the area, including me, have supported the strike so fervently.
The drivers are striking for respect and decent working conditions. If CCTA management wins, then there is a risk that their work lives will get worse and some will even lose their jobs. Many fear that behind the management’s unwillingness to bargain with the drivers over the issues that are most important to them lies a desire to hire rising numbers of temporary, low-wage, low-bargaining-power employees. Perhaps CCTA management even wants to break the union, a Teamsters local that has thus far been united in response to proposals the members find unacceptable.
The issues in the strike are not typical but they are basic. Drivers are fighting CCTA management over proposals to increase the number of part-time, non-union employees; its policy of accepting anonymous complaints of drivers’ conduct and treating these as reasons to start disciplinary investigations; and management’s demand that all drivers be available for ever longer “spread-time” shifts, during which drivers are not driving and not being paid, but are expected to be constantly on call. The latest proposal was for 13.5-hour-long shifts, with a possibility of adding 5 additional hours.
The bus drivers work hard. They already have long shifts, which are often split into relatively short but intense periods because need for buses is greater in the morning and evening rush hours than in the hours in-between. Even before the current proposals were on the table, they found CCTA management inhumane. They described their managers as suspicious, disrespectful and stingy with sick leave and time off. One described his unsuccessful effort to get approval to attend a doctor’s visit with his wife, who was pregnant and at risk of losing their baby. Another told Council members about having a long-planned (and paid-for) family vacation cancelled at the last minute because a manager said he had to show up or risk his job. A third said he was reprimanded for parking his bus at the Emergency Room when he feared he was having a life-threatening stroke.
Everyone in our community should care about the wellbeing of the drivers. People who are healthy and well rested are safer behind the wheel than people who are exhausted and anxious because their livelihoods are constantly under threat. Drivers deserve the same opportunities we all deserve to nurture family lives and enjoy occasional down time.
Supporting the strike of Burlington-area bus drivers is not just a matter of sympathy. It is also self-interest. Like most other adults in Vermont, I am an employee of a business that does not always have my best interests at heart. Like a relatively small percentage of Vermont employees, I am a union member. The bus drivers’ unity is a huge lift to unions in our area. As a demonstration of the power of employees and reminder of our unwillingness to be worked to death, it is a lift to all employees.
I am a teacher, scholar and advocate on gender issues. Supporting these drivers might seem like an odd move, since most of them are men. Their union, the Teamsters, is almost stereotypically masculine in its image. But study after study has shown that unions are especially important for women workers. Unionized workplaces are more equal across race, ethnicity and gender than non-unionized ones. Everyone does better with the opportunity to bargain collectively with their managers, and the least advantaged workers do best of all.
I support the bus drivers because they are standing up for the right to bargain about working conditions. Nothing could be more important for me as a worker, for women workers, or for Vermont as a whole.
Kornbluh is an associate professor of history and director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at UVM. She is one of 16 appointed members to the VT Commission on Women.
By Dr. Felicia Kornbluh