Community solidarity aids striking Massachusetts bus drivers

DSA members Virginia Diamond, head of the Northern Virginia Labor Council (third in from the left) and labor lawyer Jules Bernstein (middle), join the ATU picket line in a four-week bus drivers’ strike that showed the power of community solidarity. (Photo by ATU staff.)

When bus drivers on Martha’s Vineyard struck at the height of the tourist season, solidarity from longtime residents, including some DSA activists, helped them win. Key issues for the drivers were wages, which after 14 years of service are capped at $23.50 per hour, and health care, which covers only individual workers, not their families.

Founding DSA member and union-side labor attorney Jules Bernstein, along with DSA member Virginia Diamond and other progressive residents, helped lead the solidarity effort among residents.  An op-ed by Bernstein in the July 10 Martha’s Vineyard Times, under the headline “Union-busting lands on Martha’s Vineyard shores” laid out a strong case for supporting the striking drivers. Management, he pointed out, seemed determined to break the strike and the union to reassert total control over working conditions. Massachusetts senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, along with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, supported the union.

Island residents, many visitors and even the business community rallied to the strikers with car pools, contributions to a tour bus that took workers to their jobs, and picket-line support. Workers from other unions on the island, such as teachers and UFCW Stop and Shop retail workers showed up for picket lines. The Chamber of Commerce urged an early settlement that would be fair to the drivers, but the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) initially refused to convene meetings of its advisory committee after the strike started.  Community pressure forced meetings of the advisory committee, where outspoken supporters of the striking drivers put VTA officials on the defensive.

The Vineyard Transit Authority, chartered by the state, has responsibility for public transportation on the island.  Since 2003, VTA has contracted with a Florida-based firm, Transit Connections, Inc. (TCI) for operation of the bus services.  About a year after TCI took control, negotiations for a contract were stalled, and workers voted to decertify their union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).  Current drivers and officials of the ATU charge that TCI promised workers more favorable treatment if the union were decertified. TCI denies that it engaged in this blatantly illegal behavior.

TCI did clearly engage in open union-busting activity after drivers chose to re-affiliate with ATU in 2015.  In 2018, a federal court ordered TCI to bargain with the ATU. Management offered very little in that bargaining, and drivers decided to strike starting on June 28, 2019.  TCI and VTA used management employees and imported strike breakers to keep most service running. Management proved unable to keep running paratransit service that provide elderly and disabled residents access to medical care on the mainland.  That failure loomed large in convincing residents that management needed to settle the strike.

In late July, strikers traveled to Boston and rallied at the State House demanding an audit by state transportation officials of VTA finances.  

Days later the VTA Board announced that an agreement to settle the strike had been reached, and ATU members approved the contract by 38-1. Bernstein noted that the combined force of “a committed union, a dedicated and participatory rank and file union membership, and a supportive community of year-round bus riders and local businesses” brought the opposing sides to a fair contract.