Dignity vs. Predation: The CCTA Strike by C. W. Norris-Brown

This post is by one of the founders of the Vermont Community Alliance for Public Transportation, Charles Norris-Brown and it originally appeared on the Second Vermont Republic blog on 11 April 2014.  It is re-blogged here with Chuck’s permission.

On March 17, 2014, CCTA drivers with their union Teamsters Local 597 went on strike. It ended April 4 when they went back to work. The drivers got most of what they demanded in their contract. They conceded on the part time drive issue but got enough protective wording to keep CCTA from turning their jobs into part time ones. They fought against management’s attempts to enforce longer work days, and a big gain was in their fight against predatory management, the constant stalking and punishing that has been going on for so long at CCTA.

Since transit jobs cannot be sent overseas, the CCTA strike is one of a series of strikes and actions by transit workers across the nation, many times in response to the neo-taylorism brought on by computerized scheduling and mercenarial management with no driving experience squeezing more out of labor with the help of ivory tower systems engineers. Locally, the strike forced open the wounds caused by a management style that has been around too long at CCTA. The “predatory management” style is, unfortunately, but the extreme end of the denigration of labor world wide. Since fighting this was one of the CCTA drivers’ biggest gains, let’s take a closer look at the various levels in which CCTA has tried to deprive the drivers of a voice.

The CCTA strike brought out two sides to the denigration of labor: one, the content and the process of bargaining, and two, the vindictive side — the predation of drivers and the dumbing down of public discourse.

PROCESS: What is being bargained

One of CCTA’s (and its subservient Board of Commissioners) trojan horses has been its push for part time drivers based on peak hour traffic needs. Buses run all day and into the evening in the Burlington area. But here, and especially where there are commuter links to other towns, there is a need to cover increased demand in the morning and evening. This creates an M-shaped demand curve and, subsequently, the incentive to create work schedules that cover those peaks only. These are the split shifts. You work in the morning and evening only, going somewhere else in between if you can. The time between your first punch-in in the morning and the last punch-out in the evening is the “spread time.” With unlimited spread time, split shifts could start anywhere from 4:40 am and end at 11:30 pm. Most transit agencies across the country restrict the abuse of spread time by setting a maximum shift of 10.5 to 12.5 hours.

CCTA’s push has been to cut out this spread time restriction by covering the morning and afternoon bits of work by part time drivers. This fits in well with corporate interests elsewhere that seek to push full-time labor with livable income and benefits out in exchange for lower wage workers with no benefits. It also dovetails nicely with union busting so that these same workers can be treated as at-will workers.

PREDATION MANAGEMENT: What it involves at CCTA

Where CCTA has had to deal with drivers and their union that refuse to be manhandled, CCTA has tried to increase its ability to discipline and terminate drivers that it sees as problems. This has been developed into a form of social darwinism that involves weeding out the “worst” drivers through what CCTA management itself calls “risk management.” With a team of expert predators, CCTA has managed to keep drivers in a constant state of fear over when and where they will be disciplined, most often for ridiculously small matters. The operations managers set up surveillance, stalking, and anonymous complaints to create lists of infractions which they are allowed to jump all over when they see fit. The only protection the driver has is the grievance process — and this is treated with disregard by CCTA and has become toothless.

When long work days, scattered scheduling, and missed breaks are combined with a constant state of fear of being disciplined, you can begin to see why the drivers went to strike over safety. CCTA pushed the contract as far as they could to solidify long hours and make predation easier. Although hours and discipline in transit are common across the nation, CCTA has stepped up its commitment to usurping the drivers voice in its strategy in the bargaining process itself.

PROCESS: How is it bargained

Here is a list of the roles played by some kind of legal professional in support of CCTA management’s strategies:

(1) CCTA hired a lawyer from the start to be part of its bargaining team. As of around the time of the strike, CCTA paid out about $20,000 in legal fees — tax payer money;

(2) a federal mediator, paid with federal tax dollars, was part of a large number of bargaining sessions depriving both sides of face-to-face discussion.;

(3) with an impasse (apparently the mediators failed), the mediation and fact-finding led to an inane “fact-finders report” at the cost of over $12,000 shared by the union and by tax dollars. This expense was later used by management to bash the drivers in public);

(4) federal mediators were again called in an attempt to avoid the strike and several times during the strike. Mediation did not bring the drivers back to work. The strike and the pressure it caused did.

The role of all of these various forms of law dogs was to intimidate the drivers in bargaining, retain some threat of legal action, and to stonewall bargaining by nitpicking and creating loop holes in the contract. This went on with the threat of binding arbitration, the threat that VTrans would step in with legal action, or that the State would force the drivers back to work by an injunction from the lawyer. In the end, even most members of the CCTA Board got involved by signing a resolution to hire temporary drivers (scabs) if the strike continued.

As part of corporate efforts to deprive the workers of their voice, this is becoming common: the lawyerization of bargaining, threats of injunctions and other such procedures that redirect discourse away from bargaining the issues. In the end, it is also a form of union busting and often ends up with contracts crammed down the throats of workers. It is also another variation on the theme of predation.

PREDATION MANAGEMENT: The Dumbing Down of the Discourse

CCTA used its website and media interviews to push one of the “fact-finders” claims that CCTA drivers are the second highest paid in northern New England. The bargaining is really about wages, says the media. The drivers get paid well, so they should enjoy working long hours and being disrespected. Anybody with a little sense could refute this.

But it had the effect that CCTA wanted it to have and this played into their ability to posit this gem into the public domain. In a commentary on the CCTA Facebook page March 17, 2014:

“What’s wrong with these drivers? … I say fire all of you and hire new employees. … U should be on your knees thanking god you have a job”

Predatory management in a nutshell, only this time, inviting the public to be part of the abuse. Why is this important? I suggest two ways. On the one hand, it clarifies the nature of public discourse today. As the field from which communal action and social movements appear, it provides a means to locate oneself on that field. Where the corporate model dominates the field of public discourse, you find the kind of sloganeering trivialities that were the fertile ground of fascism. The dumbing down of discourse rejects rational dialogue and communal action.

On the other hand, it is important since it reflects one of the most amazing gains the drivers made through the strike. The ultimate success of the strike was in the stories. These are the stories that you can only hear if those in pain are amongst you and you listen. The drivers have shown a way to block out the hate speech and recover their sense of humanity. The stories have shown the open wounds in how CCTA is managed. The stories have given the community the reason to sign a petition that CCTA management has got to go. The stories gave strength to the drivers to sign a Vote of No Confidence in CCTA management and demand that it be replaced.

Sharing the pain and creating community supplies the power to regain the discourse from the establishment and the means to fight back.

Charles W. Norris-Brown, raised in the hills of Pennsylvania, PhD, sometimes bus driver, sometimes researcher, often deeply thinking about the state of society and our lives in it, lives in Burlington, VT with his wife Charlotte.

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