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The Not So Glamorous Organizing Efforts of Grand Rapids Bus Drivers

December 20, 2015

Over the past couple of months, we have written a couple of articles about the Grand Rapids Bus Drivers Union, the ATUGR. One article was written for the national left publication, In These Times, and another piece was more recently published on this blog. Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 4.47.43 AM

As of this writing the ITP has refused to negotiate a contract with the bus drivers union, making the stalemate more than 6 months. Instead, the management of the ITP, along with the Board of Directors has decided to engaged in tactics that are antagonistic towards bus drivers who continue to fight for a just labor contract.

Earlier in the year there was lots of organizing around this campaign, with a fair amount of media attention, even from the commercial press. However, in recent weeks the attention has dissipated and participation from rank and file members has dwindled.

This is not to say that there isn’t any organizing going on. In fact, there have been a constant stream of actions and efforts in the struggle to get a just labor contract. In the past week, I attended to activities, where ATUGR members were engaged in the more mundane, yet equally important work of organizing.

A few weeks ago while ITP CEO Peter Varga was in DC, ATU members hand him a flyer while the song from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas played in the background. In addition, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell was greeting by ATU members while attending the Paris Climate Summit. The ATU members wanted him to know that nearly 30% of the GR population lives in poverty and that the Rapid just raised bus fares by 16%.

On Wednesday, December 16, some members of the union attended the monthly board meeting for the Rapid. Two of the members spoke during public comment about the threats to their pension, while another member filmed some of the proceedings.

The Rapid board meeting was brief, but instructive. Rapid CEO Peter Varga spoke briefly at the front end of the meeting about “how he came up through the ranks,” even reflecting on his time as a bus driver in Grand Rapids. Varga also passed around a picture of when he was a bus driver, apparently attempting to present himself in a positive light as a man of the people.

One aspect of the ITP board meeting that was revealing was in the form of document they handed out to all those in attendance, a document that refers to Rules of Public Comment at Meetings. The document is clearly designed to censor people from challenging or confronting board members, since they “reserve the right to remove anyone who violates the rules.”

In addition, if you want to submit documents to the ITP board members there are also clear instructions. One of the guidelines states; “Position papers pr lengthy documents must be submitted to the office of the CEO for vetting.”Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 4.39.14 AM

The board meeting lasted only about 30 minutes and then they went into a closed Executive Session. It made little sense to this writer why there would be part of the meeting held in private, especially when this is a public entity that relies on public tax dollars for operation. Transparency did not seem to be a priority.

Yesterday morning, the Rapid held a job fair at the central station in the same room that the ITP board meeting was held. Jay DeShane with the ATUGR was present to greet people who were there to apply for a job and hand out some information on their campaign to negotiate a contract. This is often the nuts and bolts of any organizing effort, talking to people face to face about your campaign.

I was impressed with Jay’s ability to connect with people and have an honest dialogue about the current political battle they were in with the ITP. When people were not coming in to fill out job applications, Jay would engage me in conversation around labor politics and history. It was a refreshing way to spend the morning and it was even somewhat inspirational to know there are people who are willing to do the not so glamorous work of organizing that rarely sees the light of day.

In the midst of all the chatter about the 2016 President race, it was comforting to know that people are not just putting blind faith in politicians. Instead, it seems that some of the members of the ATUGR are engaged in a process that will have a direct impact on their lives. In fact, the Bus Drivers Union is doing what labor organizers have done since the later part of the 19th century. These labor organizers are taking matters into their own hands, using their own power and not abdicating it to politicians or political parties which rarely act on behalf of working class people. 

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