UT Shuttle Workers Update

By Chris Hamilton

A combination of sixty University of Texas shuttle workers and students rallied on the campus last week to demand better pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions for the 225 drivers and mechanics in the University shuttle system, approximately half of whom are members of Amalgated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1549.

The workers have been stalemated for more than two years in a contract negotiation with Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subcontractor, ATC/Vancom, who is responsible for the management of labor in the University’s transportation system. The workers’ wages have been frozen without a single increase in three years. During that time, their health care benefits have been drastically cut in a two-part reduction. Moreover, the buses have caught on fire six times under ATC’s watch, a phenomenon never before seen in the thirty year history of the University shuttle before ATC/Vancom’s arrival on the scene. The drivers continue to insist that the seven thousand service hour per year cut in maintenance instituted by ATC/Vancom is not acceptable and has culminated into a dangerous deficiency with the buses’ brakes. The workers are completely fed-up and it appears that a strike is impending.

ATC/Vancom is a subsidiary of British National Railways, who have themselves provided some of the strongest factual evidence against the merits of privatization. When this formerly state-owned enterprise passed over into private hands, rail maintenance was reduced from five to three days per week, resulting in the publicized train derailments.

ATC/Vancom is hired by Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority, who is in turn hired by the University of Texas. Capital Metro is also responsible for the bus system in the City of Austin, although they use their own non-profit organization to manage labor for the city service, rather than hiring a subcontractor. The city drivers make more than 1/3 more than the University drivers, with incomparably better health benefits. The shuttle workers decry the two-tier system as insulting and unjustified. The shuttle drivers also demand that they be given paid sick days; they receive none in contrast to the twelve per year given to Captial Metro’s city drivers, and complain that it results in them being forced to drive the buses under the influence of illness.

ATC/Vancom has offered a pay raise of thirty-three cents over four years only to the most senior drivers, along with a promise written in pencil to take care of the workers’ health benefits, with those benefits to be altered at any time on the desire or whim of the company.

Thirty drivers and mechanics coordinated with a student organization called Students for a Safe and Fair Shuttle (SFSFS) and other labor-oriented student groups to organize the rally and speak-out at the campus bus circle, with a call to the drivers to call in sick for their shifts and/or to refuse by law to work overtime. The rally was followed by a march to a nearby park for a solidarity picnic and barbecue to help build the strike fund.

ATC/Vancom responded with a threat the day before the rally that anyone who attended it would be fired, and an offer that anyone who didn’t would be rewarded with a free sandwich.

Workers who defied company orders and participated in the activities responded to the insult at the rally with cries such as, "If ATC wants my family to eat then they should give me money to buy food," and "All we want is a fair contract, but ATC only offered me a snack."

The workers and students are coordinating a plan for action in the event that the company retaliates against any workers for participation in the lawful rally.

A core group of about 30 militant drivers have demonstrated the willingness to use tactics necessary to win the struggle in a strike. However, they have exhibited some resentment towards the slow pace of movement by the union and have not yet directed their energies into organizing the union, getting all of the drivers and mechanics on board for the struggle, and building the wide and strong solidarity that will be necessary to prevail in the upcoming battles.

ATU 1549 needs our help to put pressure on the various official bodies and build community support in the University area for the looming strike.