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Rapid Board members ignore GR Bus Drivers Union comments, give administrative staff a raise

September 1, 2016

On Wednesday, August 31st, about 20 members of the Grand Rapids bus driver’s union, the ATUGR, along with supporters, spoke during the monthly board meeting of the Rapid in downtown Grand Rapids.

Before the meeting took place, about 15 people gathered in front of the Rapid facility at 300 Ellsworth Ave SW, holding signs, talking to bus riders and confronting members of the Rapid board and staff as they entered for the monthly meeting.

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We had a chance to talk briefly with the Vice President of the Amalgamated Transit Union International Javier Perez Jr, who was in town to support the Grand Rapids bus driver’s struggle.

By the time the Rapid board meeting began, the Grand Rapids Police Department decided to deploy four officers to sit in the meeting, clearly meant as an intimidation tactic and to make sure that union members or their supporters were not disruptive.

The Rapid board meetings provide an opportunity for people to address the board in public comments, before the main agenda items are presented. I counted 14 people who addressed the issue of the Rapid board’s failure to negotiate a contract with the ATU GR. What follows are some of the comments from those who spoke in support of the union.

The first person to speak was a bus driver named Donald. He states that the Rapid won’t get a millage, because the drivers won’t support any new millage, unlike what they have in the past. “There has been no raise in 2 years and no increase in pensions in the past 10 years. They just don’t want to negotiate a new contract.”

Then a woman who is an employee with the Grand Rapids Public Schools spoke. She trains students on how to ride the buses. “The bus drivers are outstanding to our students, but I don’t see any of you riding the buses. The mode now is to simply screw the workers.”

ATU member Louis DeShane, a bus driver, spoke about how the lack of negotiations has impacted him personally. He said it makes him not want to negotiate with the riders, some of which don’t want to pay the full amount for the fair and this puts his safety at risk. He also implores the Rapid board to leave the pension and health care benefits alone and to negotiate in good faith.

A woman named Dione, who is a Rapid rider, believes that if the contract isn’t settled that more drivers are likely to leave. “It would be a huge loss for the community if the Rapid cuts back on route/times. I am really torn apart by what is going on and I want you to make sure the riders and the drivers are taken care of.”screen-shot-2015-12-20-at-4-47-43-am

Another bus rider, Heidi, spoke next. She uses the Go Bus, which is critical to her ability to be mobile in the community. Heidi said, “Lots of Go Bus drivers are leaving to find better paying jobs, like truck driving.” She also stated, “What I think is happening is that it is not about the riders, but it is about keeping the Rapid Board members happy. Lifestyles will be impacted, if the contract is not negotiated.”

Justin, a driver and member of the ATU GR, also spoke. He believes that this is an attack on the middle class. “The middle class is the backbone of society. I love coming downtown and I love GR, even though I don’t live in GR. I support the bus and have friends who supported previous millages. I don’t appreciate the attacks and the failure to negotiate. So, I ask you, who do you stand with?”

The secretary for the ATU local said that last year the union gave the Rapid a savings of $1 million by going to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and that there are no longer awards given to drivers, like their used to be. “All of the apartments down here are too expensive, I could not afford to live down here on the salary that I make.”  She also stated that it costs ATU members with a family, $887 a month in health care premiums per month.

There were several students from GVSU who spoke. The GVSU United Students Against Sweatshops has been a huge supporter of the ATU GR struggle. Lindsey said that despite cops being sent to their homes earlier this year, because of the student’s support for the bus drivers, “we will continue to stand with drivers/workers. I grew up working class and my dad went through something similar to what the Rapid drivers are experiencing now. We dealt with not knowing where we would eat and not being able to go to the doctors.” 

Jen, also with GVSU USAS, said that two detectives showed up at her house for participating in the labor action earlier this year. “Take the time you spend sending cops to intimidate to actually listen to the workers.”

Abby, who works as an organizer with the ATU International office, also spoke. “I have been working with this local for over a year. What is happening here with the health insurance is horrible. Imagine growing up in a family that has to ask if they can afford to eat or go to the doctor. The drivers are the folks who move this city. They deserve good lives and a good retirement and health insurance. They deserve that.”

Peter, an ATU GR member and driver, said that this didn’t make any sense to him and he believes that the Rapid would ultimately save money if they negotiated. “Their goal is clear, that they want to do away with the pension. You are going to risk the new millage over the pension costs. These people will tell their friends and family to not vote for the next transit millage.”

Lastly, John, who is a Rapid maintenance worker, said he raised his family on the wages of the Rapid. However, he is not able to put retirement money away with the current salary. He stated that he needs the current pension and wants a fair contract.

Several other people spoke, but it didn’t seem to phase the Rapid board members, who remained silent on the matter. How effective was it for the ATU GR members to address the Rapid board once again? It’s hard to say, but their members and supporters made it clear they are not going away and will continue to apply pressure to achieve justice in this labor dispute. However, in a demonstration of how much contempt the Rapid boards members have towards the union, they voted to give the administrative staff a 2% raise. Clearly, this was a big “Fuck You” to the union and its supporters.

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