AC Transit Union Rallies Support from Communities Across the Bay Area

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Rallygoers holding signs in support of ATU 192 at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (Julie Chang/KQED)

In an effort to gain community support and bring attention to contract negotiations, AC Transit bus drivers and mechanics gathered at Fruitvale BART Station on Saturday to air their grievances against management over what they say are stalled negotiations. Their labor union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 (ATU Local 192) received support from other labor unions across the Bay Area.

In May, AC Transit's labor union entered negotiations with the company as their contract was set to expire at the end of June. In September, the union voted to authorize a strike as talks between both parties carried on.

"They've been meeting pretty regularly to try to negotiate a contract. Unfortunately, things have not been moving forward in the way that's productive for the workers," said Elizabeth Ortega-Toro, executive secretary-treasurer of Alameda Labor Council, an umbrella organization representing more than 135 unions.

AC Transit services approximately 1.5 million people who live in the agency's 364 square mile service area.

Sticking Points

The union said talks have stalled over concerns regarding sickness and safety. Among other things, they are calling on the company to keep legacy language around sick policy in its renewed contract.

Their previous contract allowed up to a year to heal for those with debilitating illnesses, but now the union says AC Transit wants to scale that back to 30 days, according to union president Yvonne M. Williams.

Karen Hopper, who has been driving for AC Transit for 17 years, said she's concerned for her coworkers "who are sick and injured, and who are being threatened to be terminated because of their injuries."

Karen Hopper, who has been driving with AC Transit for 17 years, is standing while holding up a sign that reads "AC Transit! Workers & riders roll together". She attended a rally hosted by ATU Local 192 which was held at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, November 16, 2019.
Karen Hopper, who has been driving with AC Transit for 17 years, attended a rally hosted by ATU Local 192 which was held at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (Julie Chang/KQED)

Another issue is safety. An NBC Investigative Unit review found a spike in assaults on AC Transit bus drivers in recent years after looking at 200 bus surveillance videos and uncovering an increase in the number of assaults against drivers. The videos show drivers being punched, choked, and threatened at gunpoint.

"You may have heard it on the news," said Williams, "we're subject to attacks while we're at work."

The union said they've been asking for safety shields, a barrier between passengers and bus drivers, to be installed in their buses for years. But Williams claims when AC Transit ordered buses, they "did not specify that they wanted shields."

Williams also claims that management has said they would only retrofit 25 out of 700 buses with protective shields.

The union is also demanding living wages and improved bathroom conditions, as well as asking the agency to stop diverting local services to the Transbay.

"If they don't have enough operators to provide the service for the Transbay service, they would divert service from the inner community to provide that service to Transbay lines," Williams said.

Union Solidarity

Members from the Oakland Education Association, including their president Keith Brown, attended the rally.

"We stand in solidarity with ATU 192," Brown said to the crowd. "We thank you because, ATU, you had our back in February, our students' backs in Oakland. You supported us during our strike ... and we're here to return the favor."

President of Oakland Education Association Keith Brown speaking into a megaphone in front of rallygoers holding signs that say "Fight for a better workstation," "When we fight, we win," and "AC Transit! Workers & riders roll together." The rally was hosted by ATU Local 192 at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, November 16, 2019.
President of Oakland Education Association Keith Brown speaking at a rally by ATU Local 192 held at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (Julie Chang/KQED)

The union representing BART workers, ATU Local 1555, said they'd support their AC Transit colleagues and walk alongside them at the picket lines should the latter decide to strike.

BART union president Gena L. Alexander said transit workers worry about safety on the job because they encounter people with mental disabilities or people who are experiencing homelessness or drug addiction.

They also have to deal with passengers who take public transportation to work every day and who may be under an extenuating amount of pressure thereby taking their frustrations out on the workers, Alexander added.

"You're running late, but you were late when you left home. Now your ticket doesn't work. And now you're mad at the agent because they have to fix your ticket or tell you the bad news that you don't have enough money," she said.

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To some, the fight is larger than local. "We know that when we fight locally that gives the rest of this country the energy and the willingness to continue to fight," said Jovanka Beckles from Teamsters 856, a union representing workers from over 150 different employers in both the public and private sector.

Other unions in attendance included New Haven Teachers Association representing educators from Union City, Unite HERE 2850 representing hotel and restaurant employees, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West representing healthcare workers, SEIU 1021 representing city and county employees, and IBEW Local 595 representing electrical workers.

The rally ended with attendees breaking into small groups and heading out to share information with others and local businesses. Rallygoers were tasked with poster and flyer canvassing at different BART stations.

John Murray worked as a Muni bus driver for 30 years before he retired. Liz Kimura worked as a mechanic for BART for 20 years before she retired. Both are holding up signs that read "AC Transit! Workers & riders roll together". Kimura is also wearing a homemade poster sign that says "The Working Class has POWER! We need unity & organization to use it!" They attended a rally hosted by ATU Local 192 which was held at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, November 16, 2019.
John Murray worked as a Muni bus driver for 30 years before he retired. Liz Kimura worked as a mechanic for BART for 20 years before she retired. They attended a rally hosted by ATU Local 192 which was held at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (Julie Chang/KQED)

AC Transit spokesperson Robert Lyles said the agency remains at the negotiating table, that they are unaware of any impasse in contract negotiations and that he will not get into details because negotiations are ongoing.

Driver compartment shields are "just one" of the improvements for bus operators that have already been adopted by the board of directors, according to Lyles. The company is in the process of testing out two beta model shields and waiting for union approval before moving on to next steps, he said.

"For us, our train operators are safer because we go into a cab and close the door," Alexander said, "AC Transit bus drivers don't have that luxury. They are at the mercy of the public ... like sitting ducks."

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