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Though Nearly 10K Stranded Daily, Local Residents Support Striking VT Bus Drivers

In Burlington, Vermont nearly 70 bus drivers have gone on strike hoping to receive a fair contract from management. The drivers are represented by Teamsters Local 597 and work for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA). Chittenden County is Vermont’s most populated county.

As we wrote earlier this month, drivers voted to authorize a strike after contract negotiations failed to yield guarantees of reasonable, safe shifts. Under their current contract, drivers are forced to be on duty for up to 12 hours while only working and getting paid for part of that time.  

The drivers took to the picket line March 17th.  The bus system’s 9,700 daily riders, which includes 2,000 school children, must make alternative plans until a contract can be reached.  In spite of the inconvenience, over 70 students from Burlington High School joined the drivers in solidarity on the picket line. They were joined by members of other area unions. One student, Sabine Rogers, explained why she joined the picket line:

We’re trying to make a public show of support for our drivers, who bring more than 60 percent of us to and from school each day. This is for the kids whose parents don’t have a car to bring them to school. We realize the strike is going to be hard for everyone, but we support the drivers’ demands and hope management will change.

The labor organizations supporting Local 597 include the United Electrical Workers, the Vermont AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, AFSCME, United Academics, Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, and the Vermont State Employees Association.

The Teamsters have hit a bit of a snag, however, as CCTA management and much of the city’s political establishment favor binding arbitration. Workers have vehemently rejected the idea arguing that the supposed “neutral” arbitrator would likely side with the city.

Matt McGrath of the Vermont Workers’ Center told the Burlington Free Press that while binding arbitration is fairly common in Burlington, this is a unique situation:

“Contrary to what people are saying, it’s not really widely used at all in labor-management negotiations,” McGrath said. “It just so happens that the Burlington municipal workers have it as part of their contract, so I think it’s something that city officials are familiar with, but generally speaking, it’s not something that happens very often. That’s why we’re begging the questions as to why everyone is saying that it should happen. It’s taking the decision out of the hands of both parties.”

In effect, binding arbitration goes against the basic concept of fair negotiations. Instead of bringing together parties to settle their differences, this type of solution typically rules in favor of one side. This can lead to further tension and more volatile negotiations when the next contract comes around.  

While the public has sided with the unionized drivers, the support of some of Vermont’s heavy hitters, namely Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, has not yet surfaced (both have stayed quiet on the issue). Some members of the city council, though, have expressed their support. These members include Rachel Siegel, P-Ward 3; Vince Brennan, P-Ward 3; Max Tracy, P-Ward 2; and councilor-elect Selene Colburn, P-Ward 1. In a statement earlier this week, the council members said:

“When unionized drivers agree to strike in a unanimous vote, rather than accept the terms of a contract, despite the risks to their livelihoods and their families, it signals a deep concern for the existing working conditions,” the councilors said. “We call on CCTA to deliver a fair contract to drivers.”

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