CCTA bus drivers picketing on Church Street after going on strike over failed contract negotiations.
UPDATED 1:30 p.m.
The long-discussed, much-threatened bus drivers' strike is on.
Instead of ferrying thousands of workers, students and families across Central Vermont, drivers from the Chittenden County Transportation Authority are spending the day walking picket lines and attending downtown rallies.
After voting down the agency's most recent contract offer last week 54-0 drivers carried through with today's threatened strike, shutting down nearly all of CCTA's routes, which ferry roughly 10,000 passengers daily. Drivers had backed away from a previous strike threat earlier in the month.
Bus stops in Burlington and surrounding communities stood mostly empty. Charlotte Sando, an exchange student at Champlain College who hails from Norway, was facing a 30-minute walk back to her Winooski home after class. Sando said Burlington is much colder than she’s used to, and given today’s frigid weather, “I’d rather take the bus.”
Riders have also been documenting their commuting woes on social media. Katie Mobley, who works at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski, tweeted that students “are scrambling to find rides to make it to class.” Kristine Harootunian posted on Facebook that “my husband biked to Skirack for work this morning. Said his toes nearly froze off.”
Michael Blood, a junior at University of Vermont, was waiting at a stop on South Winooski Street. Blood takes the bus to class most days to avoid the 15-minute walk uphill from his apartment to campus. He’d forgotten there was a strike but when reminded, he took the news in stride and he said found the drivers’ requests reasonable. “I feel like compensating for basic human needs is important,” said Blood, referencing their complaints that shifts are too long and don’t allow for bathroom breaks.
“The support from the outside has been terrific,” said Derek Lorraine, who’s driven buses for CCTA for 15 years and is a member of the union’s negotiating team. Lorraine was helping lead a cluster of roughly 15 drivers and supporters who were picketing on Church Street. “Cars are going by giving us a toot or pumping their fists,” said Lorraine, as he warmed his hands with a cup of coffee. Not everyone is happy — “We’ve had a few f-bombs, too.” — but Lorraine said riders, in particular, have been supportive.
Three current and one incoming city councilor — all Progressives — sent an open letter Monday, stressing their support for drivers. It read, “Drivers are asking for basic rights that everyone understands: reasonable working hours, the security of full time work, and the right to collective bargaining in the face of management conditions that by many accounts include surveillance, bullying, and disrespect.”
CCTA officials said the drivers are not only inconveniencing travelers but also not acting in accordance with labor law. The nonprofit transportation agency said the union, which represents 71 full-time drivers, is obliged to make a new proposal since it rejected CCTA's most recent offer. Management officials pinned blame for the stoppage on driver obstinance.
“CCTA is deeply concerned about the impact of the drivers’ strike on our passengers and the communities we serve,” CCTA General Manager Bill Watterson said. “It is important for Vermonters to understand that, under the law, the Union can restore negotiations — and potentially bus service — by offering a change in their current position in the direction of compromise regarding the concerns that have led them to strike. We hope, for the benefit of our communities, that they will offer such a compromise proposal very soon.”
"Contrary to the statements made by some union spokespeople, CCTA cannot stop the strike even by making a new offer," Watterson continued. "However, the union can restore negotiations by submitting a formal counter proposal to CCTA’s last contract offer that represents an additional effort at compromise."
Both CCTA and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who is currently on a trip to Japan, have urged the union to settle their differences with management through binding arbitration. The union has rejected those pleas.
“CCTA has made every effort to reach an agreement and avoid a strike, including twice extending an offer of binding arbitration,” Watterson said. “CCTA’s last proposal to the Union was exceedingly fair, reasonable and respectful, including generous pay increases and flexibility in work rules in response to issues raised by the Union in negotiations. Unfortunately, the union was not satisfied and now it is in their court to put a compromising counter proposal on the table in order to restore face-to-face negotiations and the transportation services our communities rely on.”
On behalf of the striking drivers, retired driver Chuck Norris-Brown released a statement saying they have no faith in an arbitrator giving them a fair-shake.
"CCTA claims that we need binding arbitration," he said. "We feel we are fully capable to speak for ourselves. The drivers do not believe that an outside mediator knows anything about bus drivers’ workdays. We are fed up with having our proposals not treated with respect and hacked away at. We have reached our limit."
The statement did not respond to CCTA's assertions that the union is obligated to offer a counter-proposal, but reiterated drivers' concerns that the agency is seeking to hire more part-timers, and is not sensitive to problems that the current transit schedule causes for drivers.
"We are professionals,' the statement said. "We expect to be treated like professionals. We are not asking for the world on a silver platter. We are just asking for a place of dignity, respect, safety and the chance for some happiness in our job. As professionals, we can help make CCTA a model transit agency and something our community can be proud of."
The contract dispute is not about wages or benefits. Drivers start at $42,000 a year and can earn upwards of $60,000 with overtime pay. But drivers say they are displeased about hours and working conditions, particularly the requirement that they work split shifts. They also fret about CCTA plans to hire part-time drivers, which the union believes threatens the security of full-time jobs.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Agency of Transportation urged both the drivers and management to remember the people who rely most heavily on the buses.
The agency released a statement "urging both sides to keep the needs of passengers front and center in their efforts to resolve this. More than $9 million public dollars, federal and state, are invested in CCTA each year and ridership has been growing due to these investments and the great job done by CCTA management and employees in delivering a high quality service. Both sides have much to be proud of and VTrans fears that the momentum could be lost with an interruption of service caused by a prolonged strike."
The Agency of Transportation encouraged stranded riders to consult the rideshare matching database at the GO!Vermont website to help arrange alternate transportation. http://www.connectingcommuters.org