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Day of Action draws attention to the fight for worker justice in Grand Rapids

January 28, 2016

Yesterday, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Grand Rapids, GVSU United Students Against Sweatshops and community activists participated in a variety of actions to put pressure on The Rapid, which has been harassing workers and threatening to alter or end bus driver pensions.2016-01-27 13.01.19

The battle for worker justice has been going on for roughly nine months, ever since The Rapid has refused to negotiate a contract settlement with ATUGR members. As we have reported in the past, The Rapid has threatened workers engaged in educating the public about their campaign, denied them their free speech rights and have failed to participate in collective bargaining. These threats against bus drivers have all come at the same time that rates for riding the bus have increased and the CEO of the Rapid was given a substantial salary increase.

The Day of Action began at noon, when banners were hung just off the Wealthy Street exit of US 131, banners which lays the blame for worker abuse and lack of contract negotiations at the feet of The Rapid CEO Peter Varga.

Shortly after the banners were hung, about 15 people gathered at the Central Bus Station to initiate a fare strike. Activists got on a number of buses and handed the drivers a quarter sheet stating that they were not paying the fare. The drivers then called dispatch to say what was happening, while those involved in the fare strike then passed out flyers to everyone else on the bus telling them to use the flyer as a ticket, refuse to pay and tell the driver why.

The flyer that was being handed out read in part, “The Rapid’s recent actions toward you and your riders is a form of economic violence that I won’t condone. Because it is illegal for union bus drivers like you to go on strike in Michigan, I am doing the closest thing that I can as a rider by engaging in this one-day fare strike.”Screen-Shot-2016-01-21-at-4.44.57-PM

This tactic was fairly effective since it not only sent a message to management, it provided a forum to engage in popular education with riders. Several hundred flyers were handed out during the fare strike and many people whom this writer observed taking the flyers were both supportive and somewhat shocked to find out about how bus drivers were being treated.

The third component of the Day of Action was to flood The Rapid with phone calls telling them to stop harassing workers, to stop threatening bus driver pensions and to negotiate a contract settlement. Not only were people in West Michigan participating in the call-in action, but people from across the state and the country were participating as a show of solidarity with the fight for worker justice in Grand Rapids.

The last part of the action took place during the monthly ITP board meeting, which began at 4pm at the Central Station headquarters. About 30 people, again consisting of union members, students and community activists, showed up to participate in this part of the action.

During public comment, there were several people who got up to address the treatment of workers and the injustice of giving the CEO a raise, while raising the fare and threatening worker pensions. After public comment was closed these 30 activists turned their seats around so that their backs were facing the ITP board members. This symbolic act was to demonstrate their frustration with the ITP’s unwillingness to truly listen to the concerns of people and move towards negotiations.

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After the board got through the agenda, they then planned to have a closed meeting to talk about collective bargaining. ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson had asked during the public comment to allow him and other union members to be part of that discussion, but the ITP board members refused to respond to that request.

At this point some people got up and made statements directed at the board members while a group of about 15 people sat on the floor right in front of the ITP board members and began chanting with the expressed intention of disrupting their “closed meeting.” Here is some video from the sit in part of the Day of Action, which includes the ITP security and the GRPD forcing people to leave to room.

The ITP Board members were clearly bothered by the sit in, with some getting up and leaving the room, while others just decided to look at their phones. None of the board members even bothered to talk to those sitting in, nor did they go out to lobby area to engage union members. At one point, a board member came up to this writer wanting to know what I thought about the union’s desire to create a “special class of people.” I told him that he should talk directly to the union if he wanted to debate class politics.

The Grand Rapids Police were called almost immediately, but did not enter the room until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the protest. At that time they told those still sitting in the board room that if they didn’t leave they would be arrested. Those who were taking place in the sit in then decided to get up and leave. The doors were closed and then the cops told people that they could no longer be in the building (despite the fact that it is public space) and even harassed folks to not stand outside in front of Central Station unless they were all the way to the curb area.

People can debate the effectiveness of such actions, but to this writer it seemed to not only involved lots of people, it also motivated people to want to continue to be involved in the campaign and increase the pressure against The Rapid.

We spoke with ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson about his thoughts on the Day of Action.

Also, as of this posting, there was no other media coverage of these actions in Grand Rapids, although MLive did run a nice piece about National Chocolate Cake Day.

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