Strike in Alabama: Crimson Ride Drivers force further negotiations

Alabama has one of the highest union densities in the south, and a rich tradition of labor militancy, but it's still rare that organized labor makes headlines. This week, workers demanded to be heard. On February 28 rank-and-file members of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1208 in Tuscaloosa, voted to strike. Drivers of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Ride transport buses were fed up with British multinational First Transit’s refusal to grant them a decent contract.

Crimson Ride driver

After nine months of intermittent negotiations, First Transit had offered the drivers a 17 cent raise from $9.50 to $9.67 an hour--an insult to drivers who had been promised much more. The company refused to offer affordable benefits and wanted to retain the right to fire the drivers without cause. The drivers also noted unsafe conditions, including poorly maintained buses and badly needed repairs First Transit refused to pay for. Of course, that's capitalism for you--generating profits by stealing value and putting workers at risk.

At 5am on March 1, around 40 Crimson Ride drivers, students and union representatives gathered to picket in front of First Transit’s Tuscaloosa headquarters. Though it was freezing by Alabama standards, the camaraderie was infectious and coffee kept bodies warm. Some drivers arrived for work, but were quickly talked out of crossing the picket line and donned red ATU shirts in solidarity. A few scabs did cross, but only 6 of 17 buses went out and at least 3 of these were operated by management.

On campus, the disruption in service was immediately evident. Almost everyone was walking. Even though the university coerced some of their employees to drive shuttle vans to compensate for the loss of bus service, many students boycotted Crimson Ride altogether. Students and faculty rallied on the steps of the library to support the drivers, then broke into teams to convince students to stay off the buses and vans. At the same time, calls poured in to UA president Witt's office in support of the drivers.

The university was clearly intimidated. That afternoon, UA admonished First Transit to restart talks, and around 2:30, the company told the ATU they’re willing to come back to the table. The drivers were elated. Still, it remains to be seen whether or not the strike was a success. ATU Vice President Kenneth Kirk said he "remained a pessimist," but believed the company would offer more than it had previously.

Bus Strike Not Fair To Students

I rely on the buses to get me from my home to school and then around campus. Due to my small frame, it's hard for me to walk all around campus because I tired easily. I know the drivers want more money, but do they honestly realize how much they are hurting the students who rely on the bus system on a daily basis? What about those students who are temporarily or permanently disabled who rely on the buses. What are they supposed to do? I'm temporarily on crutches but now since the buses aren't running, I'm having to leave my crutches at home and do my best with getting around campus.

Drivers you want more money, but think about the students too. If it wasn't for us regular riders, you wouldn't have a job to begin with. Consider our feelings in this.

Transit workers and transit-dependent riders

You raise a good point, but I disagree with your conclusion. In strikes like these over public services, it's crucial to consider the interests of those who most need the service in question. I am not a UA student but I have been involved with transit rider/worker organizing in the past and know about First Transit, which is the same company that contracts for bus drivers at the college I did go to, Georgia State (those drivers recently organized with the Teamsters union). In transit organizing, what we realized was that fighting for the interests of transit dependent riders (especially disabled people, who have set a real example of strong organizations and direct action) meant, in the long term, fighting for the interests of bus drivers and other transit workers as well. The game that transit companies play is to pit the two sides against each other: "We've only got so much money, so either service or wages have to get cut!"


The truth is these companies are making a profit. With the current contract, First Transit is getting $55.50 an hour... the workers only get 17% of that!!! It's not that drivers want more money, but they want the company to rob them a little bit less. Since that money is ultimately coming from tuition, isn't it better to have that go to the people whose faces you see every day than a faceless multinational corporation?


A company that pays workers poverty wages is clearly not concerned about safety or any kind of decency, only their bottom line. I've seen examples of these kinds of struggles where students working together with campus drivers and workers have resulted in much better service - because there is a human relationship created between both.


In any case, the strike only lasted one day so these are questions and discussions for the future - hopefully one in which UA students and bus drivers will see their interests are connected.

Crimson Ride Drivers--Update

The Crimson Ride Drivers represented by ATU Local 1208 are officially locked out of their jobs.


On Tuesday, March 2 The Crimson Ride drivers who participated in the one-day strike returned to work, under the impression First Transit was ready to negotiate in good faith. After the ATU refused to accept a deal that still offered poverty wages, First Transit stormed out of the negotiations.


The next day, the University of Alabama decided to cut back the Crimson Ride bus service to three routes, allowing only 5 drivers to come to work.


The University continued to limit service all week--despite the end of the strike. It claimed it was doing so in order to pressure both the union and First Transit to come to an agreement. A university representative claimed on television that First Transit could afford to pay the drivers a larger share of the $55.50 an hour the company receives from UA.


It's true that both the drivers and First Transit lost revenue due to the reduced schedule--but it should be obvious that the unofficial lockout hurt the drivers far more than it did the gigantic multinational.


At the end of the week the university made it clear whose side it was on. At 7pm Friday--too late for students to respond--the university sent out a press release from First Transit to the entire student community. The email included a number of outright falsehoods, including the claims that the ATU never informed its membership of First Transit's offer.


Despite that the email was worded in such a way to make First Transit seem fair, even generous, it was clear that neither the company nor the university saw the unionized drivers as anything but disposable. The end of the press release informed the UA community that First Transit had "made arrangements to bring qualified, licensed drivers from other areas of the country to assist as necessary"--in other words, it was bringing in replacement workers, or scabs, to lock out the union members until they accepted the company's terms.


As of today, scab drivers were training on the campus. Further negotiations started this evening.


If you have time, please call University of Alabama President Robert Witt at (205) 348-5103 and tell him workers are not expendable and do not deserve to live in poverty.

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