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Alabama bus drivers defend jobs, education

Published Mar 13, 2010 10:41 AM

BULLETIN: As we go to press, the following update was posted to the SDS Tuscaloosa, Ala., Facebook page: “On March 9 at 2:30 a.m., First Transit and ATU came to an agreement on a contract. This is great news because as most of you know, if there was no contract in place by today, the drivers would be locked out and scabs would be running the buses today. It hasn’t been voted upon yet by the drivers, and we have few details, but we will keep you updated. Go ahead and ride the buses, and when you do, thank your drivers and congratulate them on the change that their courage has created.”

A small, stalwart crowd rallied at the University of Alabama on March 4 in support of campus bus drivers fighting for their first union contract. A multinational group of protesters — including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and a U of A alumnae — defended education by supporting them. The rally was organized by Tuscaloosa Students for a Democratic Society and Students in Solidarity with Crimson Ride Shuttle Drivers.

Right to left: David Collins (with SDS sign),
Jim Toweill, Chapin Rose Gray, Laura Langley,
Stacy Morgan, Caroline James,
Devon Morrisette, at the Crimson Ride Shuttle
“hub” on the University of Alabama-
Tuscaloosa campus, March 4.
WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1028 is in negotiation with First Transit, which was subcontracted by the university in 2007 to run the “Crimson Ride Shuttle.” Local 1208 has a majority African-American and substantially female membership. First Transit is a subsidiary of FirstGroup/First Transit International, which originated in the privatization of bus services in the United Kingdom, and now owns a controlling stake in Greyhound Bus Lines.

David Collins, a former Crimson Ride driver, initiated the union by contacting the ATU in New York. He was later fired as the bus drivers voted to unionize last May. The university pays First Transit $55 an hour to transport students; the drivers are paid $9.50 an hour. At the rally Collins pointed out the extreme discrepancy, arguing that the surplus is simply “pocketed by the company” as profits. He noted the drivers are doing skilled work, requiring them to have a Class B operator’s license.

In a video, “Empty Promises: ATU Crimson Ride Drivers Speak Out!” (available at vimeo.com), Local 1028 workers reveal how they were promised raises, bonuses, holiday pay and other benefits by the company, and have seen none of this materialize. Workers have to file for unemployment when the university is out for holiday or summer breaks.

One worker said: “Last year what I made was almost poverty level. I’ve been a bus driver since 1956, I’ve just turned 74, and it would be hard for me to go out and find another job.” Another worker said: “I can’t hardly eat or feed my family, barely put gas in the car. I’ve got nieces and nephews working in restaurants making what I do, and I’m supposed to be the bread and butter of my family.”

Another noted the attention the drivers give students: “We know who is graduating — and who is failing. We get them to their classes — and safely home from parties.”

At the rally, Caroline James, a junior psychology and communications major, said the Crimson Ride bus drivers were defending education by showing students the living struggle. She noted that in general students lack information on labor issues and labor organizing.

The local has gotten tremendous support in their struggle. On campus, the solidarity work for the bus drivers is being coordinated by Students in Support of the Crimson Ride Shuttle Drivers and SDS Tuscaloosa. The organizations set up teams to board the buses, leaflet other students, and speak out for the drivers while shuttling across campus. They were met with applause and pledges from students “not to ride.” In echo of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, Collins said the local’s message to students is: “Boycott the buses — no one should ride the buses” until First Transit meets the ATU Local 1208 demands.

When First Transit was intransigent about negotiating, and university administrators said this was none of their business, the organizers mounted a ferocious call-in campaign to University of Alabama President Robert DeWitt. Hundreds of calls poured in and the administration finally made a statement that First Transit received adequate subsidies from the university to pay the drivers a fair wage, and if First Transit did not do so, the university would seek other transportation options.

Linking the rally to the March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education, SDS organizer Chapin Rose Gray stated: “Students and workers are all facing the effects of the economic crisis — students are facing tuition hikes and workers at schools are being hit with layoffs and pay cuts. Today, workers and students stood together to defend education against this crisis.”

Gray also noted the clear connection between the billions spent by the U.S. to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cuts, tuition increases and wage squeezes in education. SDS Tuscaloosa plans a related protest on March 20, the anniversary of the most recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Labor support is also strong and includes members of the ATU local in Jackson, Miss.; the West Alabama Labor Council; and International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 2003 in Daleville, Ala.

Alabama leads the Southeast U.S. in workers represented by unions, at 212,000 — 12.3 percent of the workforce and rising. It is the only Southern state with double-digit percentage union membership.

Professor Bob Robicheaux, chair of University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics, echoed big business when he claimed that if Alabama loses its status as a “right to work” state, and instead has “strong organized labor,” the state will lose its “attraction” to U.S. and non-U.S. business. (Birmingham News, March 2)

But the Crimson Shuttle bus drivers, and Alabama union workers, are putting big business on notice that the real rights in question are the right to a living wage and the right to a job.