The strike kicked off in the dark at CCTA’s headquarters and garage on Burlington’s Industrial Road, but before 7:00 am drivers and a crowd of approximately 150 supporters, about half of them Burlington High School (BHS) students, congregated at the system’s main transfer station downtown. Burlington resident Andy Simon explained why he was there – “I’m a bus rider, I’m a climate activist, and I know that we have to have a public transportation system that works. To have it work, it has to work for the drivers as well as management.” Picketers chanted, waved signs and handed out more leaflets to bystanders and passersby in the bitter, even by Vermont standards, cold (Baird 2014b). Despite the conditions, supporters even sang, reworking the old children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” to “The drivers make the bus go round and round … (Baird 2014b; Leavitt 2014a).” Driver Rob Slingerland, acting as a spokesman for those on the picket line told the press “We’re headstrong, dead-set on being out here as long as we have to be out here;” citing the obvious, Slingerland added “Temperatures aren’t going to stop us,” and vowed the walkout would last “as long as it takes.” Although CCTA General Manager Watterson dismissed the gathering downtown, remarking that a “more productive emphasis would be a return to negotiations,” perhaps the most enduring image of that morning would be provided by the high school students. Fortified with free coffee supplied by Uncommon Grounds, a popular Church Street coffee shop, they left the demonstration en masse, and carrying picket signs, formed a long line that snaked its way up North Avenue to Monday morning classes at BHS (Baird 2014b; Leavitt 2014a).
Students of Burlington’s public and parochial schools constitute over one-quarter, estimated at 2,400 daily, of CCTA’s ridership (Baird 2014b.). Students at BHS, especially, played a crucial role supporting the drivers during the strike. A petition signed by over 500 BHS students was presented to Burlington’s City Council by a group of 12 teenagers the evening of March 10, one week before the strike. The petition, citing “the safety of students and the public,” disparaged CCTA management as “irresponsible,” and accused them of “provok[ing] a drivers’ strike that would make it difficult or impossible for many students to get to school (Leavitt 2014a).” Senior Henry Prine, noting that that the petition with the signatures of over one-half of BHS’ students was signed in just a single school day, remarked that they could have gotten the other half if they had had another few hours (Smith).
Prine, whose father Paul Fleckenstein chaired many of the solidarity committee’s meetings, served as student representative on the Burlington School Board for the 2013-14 school year. During the buildup to the strike, Burlington Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Collins recommended that the district contract with Mountain Transit, a private bus company to provide one week of student transportation. Prine spoke against the proposal and gained the support of all but one board member in voting it down. Although the cost to the district of engaging Mountain Transit, estimated to be roughly four times more than the district paid for CCTA service, was probably a factor in turning the Superintendent’s recommendation down, the district’s website reported that it did not wish “to step into the labor management issues of CCTA (Baird 2014c; Leavitt 2014a).” According to Prine, “Many members … voted this way because they wanted to show support to our local city bus drivers and not … hire scab drivers (Leavitt 2014a).”
Drivers maintained picket lines at both the CCTA garage on Industrial Avenue, and downtown at the intersection of Church and Cherry Streets, in the heart of Burlington’s main shopping district. The weather remained cold that week with high temperatures remaining mostly in the 20s (Weather Underground 2014). To keep up spirits on the picket lines, a late afternoon rally was scheduled for Wednesday, March 19. A small, impromptu brass band arrived to warm the atmosphere on the overcast day, and at least two local pizzerias, Junior’s and Mister Mike’s, as well as an anonymous benefactor, donated pizzas to the gathering. Drivers were joined by dozens of supporters, including schoolteachers, high school and college students, nurses, professors, a number of United Electrical Workers Young Activists, as well as former drivers and other community members, while representatives of various unions and other organizations pledged support. That Friday evening, March 21, a potluck dinner was held for drivers, their families and allies at the Vermont Workers Center. Although the dinner was open to the public, drivers and friends refused to make any statements to the press since a new round of mediated negotiations were scheduled for the next day. Ashley Smith, of the solidarity committee, told reporter Joel Baird that “the drivers’ union … made it clear they hoped to avoid any media portrayals that might be construed as antagonistic (Baird 2014a).”
After a week on picket lines, drivers’ hopes, anticipating a settlement, were high. Their union officials had responded to management’s request for a new contract proposal, and the drivers had shown that they were serious about their demands (Murray 2014g). The mood on Saturday’s downtown picket line was optimistic; temperatures rose into the upper 30s, kettle corn was given away by a street vendor along with free coffee from Uncommon Grounds, and strikers were joined by concerned citizens, members of other unions and even afternoon shoppers. As the crowd grew, so did expectations that a favorable settlement would be reached that day. Unfortunately, after seven hours of negotiations – following three hours waiting for management to show up – talks had once again failed to resolve the issues between the two sides (Grace and McQuade 2014).
According to General Manager Bill Watterson, “the union ultimately rejected CCTA’s proposed compromise and walked out … while the CCTA team was still actively engaged with the federal mediators at 8:20 pm.” A news release from CCTA reported the main issues to be compensation, cameras on buses, part-time drivers and split shifts, and that the union demands “continue to be out of line with CCTA’s obligation to operate safe, affordable and reliable public transportation.” Teamster official Tony St. Hilaire rebutted the company’s claims, stating that only two issues separated the two sides – length of (split) shifts, and the use of video cameras to discipline drivers. St. Hilaire explained “The message was made clear to the company that the acceptance of any contract offer … would be dependent on [CCTA’s] acceptance of the union’s proposal; … the discipline article [was] a very important issue for the membership (Murray 2014g).”
The anger aimed at CCTA’s video surveillance policy derived from the company’s use of the cameras to confirm anonymous complaints and justify firing drivers. Drivers argued that using video to corroborate unidentified complainants’ assertions violated their right to face their accuser. Watterson disagreed, saying that management could not disregard a complaint due to anonymity “because there might be validity.” Citing what he called “video’s enhancements to safety, fairness and accountability,” and CCTA’s “obligation” to protect the public, Watterson referred to the contract’s grievance language that “protect[s] drivers in those situations.” Drivers, however, no doubt recalling the company’s resistance to the grievance process, insisted that the sentence “Anonymous complaints against drivers must not trigger disciplinary reviews that rely on video footage” be included in the new contract (Baird 2014d).”
The absence of bus service at the end of a long cold winter certainly caused hardship for many Burlington residents and other Vermonters. While those owning cars dealt with increased traffic congestion and longer commute times, many others, especially people with lower incomes, had to find alternate modes of transportation to get to work or appointments. While some drivers and supporters created carpools and drove regular riders to their destination, local print media consistently focused on hardships faced by people dependent on public transit (Fouts; Smith). The Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s largest daily paper, seemed to require that every article on the strike report that 9,700 daily riders and 2,400 schoolchildren were not being served by bus drivers during the strike, and regularly provided accounts of riders distressed by the strike. Burlington’s weekly newspaper, Seven Days, took a similar approach, focusing on hardships faced by the residents and students most affected by the strike. One such rider was Paula Mongeon, a disabled Winooski resident who had broken her ankle that January. Burlington Free Press reporter Elizabeth Murray interviewed Mongeon, who, due to the strike, was having difficulty making it to her twice-weekly physical therapy visits and her twice-monthly primary care appointments; Mongeon was reported being “frantic” in her efforts to find rides. Later in the article, Murray acknowledged that Mongeon, although missing two appointments due to the strike, had “taken part in some rallies supporting the striking drivers (Murray 2014e).” While neither paper took a blatantly anti-union position during the strike, drivers and others criticized both for functioning as mouthpieces for CCTA management, accusing them of publishing company press releases verbatim without fact-checking or further investigation (Smith).
Burlington’s political establishment became a significant obstacle to the drivers achieving the contract they wanted. Although a number of elected officials, especially members of Vermont’s Progressive Party were publicly supporting the union, Democrats, one Progressive and the lone Republican on Burlington’s City Council called for a special meeting to adopt a resolution of binding arbitration (Murray 2014f). While the first scheduled meeting was canceled due to the council being unable to meet the public warning requirements, the special meeting was held Wednesday evening, March 26 in Contois Auditorium, Burlington City Hall. Since eight of the fourteen councilors had co-sponsored the resolution, approving it seemed to be all but a done deal. But, the drivers and the community solidarity group were ready. As the tenth day of the strike was winding down, allies from other unions and the community joined drivers at Cherry and Church. The throng, now totaling about 150, carrying signs and chanting “Get up, get down, Burlington’s a union town!” and “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!” marched down Church Street and up the stairs into City Hall (Leavitt 2014c).
Binding arbitration, to most casual observers, probably seems to be a fair resolution for most labor-management conflicts. Drivers, however, had made it abundantly clear that they did not find such a conclusion acceptable. Prior to the strike, Rob Slingerland, spoke for the drivers – “Management and their lawyer don’t have to live under the terms of their proposed contract. We do. Agreeing to binding arbitration does not move us closer to having safer working conditions, safer conditions for passengers and other drivers, or livable jobs. Those are our core demands and what is necessary to reach a settlement (Leavitt 2014c; Murray 2014b).”
As the drivers and supporters filed into the City Council meeting that evening to speak against binding arbitration, Council President Joan Shannon, a Democrat, notified those in attendance that the public commentary session, traditionally held at the beginning of council meetings, would be postponed due to an executive session. Funneling back through the doors and into the lobby, obviously perturbed by the Council’s clumsy delaying tactic, the crowd started rhythmically clapping and chanting “Whose house? Our house!” and “What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” Organizers hurriedly sought speakers, bus drivers and those representing other unions/organizations, to address the crowd, and the group quieted enough to hear what each had to say, but then resuming their chanting and clapping during each change of speaker. After about 45 minutes, the drivers’ contingent was allowed back into the auditorium where they took over the speaker’s list and recounted their objections to CCTA’s contract proposals and the reasons why they were on strike. By the time they had finished, two of the resolution’s eight sponsors, Karen Paul and Tom Ayers, backed away from the document. Councilor Paul then introduced a successful amendment to “remove the resolution from the agenda,” adding, “I’ve learned a great deal tonight.” Although Mayor Weinberger and some other councilors continued to argue in favor of the resolution, the focus had shifted from binding arbitration to a discussion of whether to sanction CCTA management by the end of the meeting. Ade Fajobi, a driver from Nigeria, told reporters “This is the movement of the people. The voice of everybody changed the votes of City Council (Leavitt 2014c; Smith).”
Having beaten down with numbers and voices the city council’s attempt to impose binding arbitration, the solidarity committee planned a noontime rally and demonstration for the following Saturday, March 29. With another negotiations session scheduled for that Friday, there was hope that a settlement could be reached, and that this could be a victory rally. After 17 hours, however, word came that the talks had broken down; in the words of driver James Fouts, “They basically tossed the same pile of dung back in our faces.” However, aware that the council meeting had been a turning point, over 200 supporters had flocked to the steps outside City Hall, and then participated in the well-planned march up and then down Church Street. A number of speakers addressed the multitude at various stops along the route (Davis 2014c). Amy Lester, a Vermont-NEA member from Barre, about 40 miles from Burlington, expressed both the solidarity created by the fusion of labor and community, and the group’s commitment to see the strike through to the finish, telling those assembled “By using your right to strike, you’re creating a stronger movement of workers. Your strength is our strength. … We have your back, keep fighting and don’t give up (Leavitt 2014c).”
Despite the encouragement and solidarity demonstrated by the greater Burlington community, two weeks on strike was taking a toll. Picket duty in bitter cold, a time lag between the beginning of the strike and the distribution of the strike fund payouts, and the prevalence of negative publicity regarding the union’s aims and drivers’ motives had some drivers questioning their decision to strike. A few drivers had even broken down in tears while on the line. But the organization crafted by the drivers with the assistance of the solidarity committee responded quickly and effectively; the squad arrangement created before the strike allowed quick communication both with other drivers and with St. Hilaire. Drivers having difficulty were whisked off the line by colleagues and brought to a quiet place inside Burlington’s University Mall or to a coffee shop to warm up, refresh, use the facilities, or just talk; volunteers filled in on the line when necessary.
Cohesion and camaraderie were vital during the strike, so squad leaders met with communication liaison Rob Slingerland, shop stewards and negotiators nearly every night. Drivers were kept updated with current information delivered in consistent language. Since all members were kept on the same page, the system worked both ways – proposals and options were communicated to Slingerland by negotiators; he relayed the information to squad leaders, and they to their squad. Members then gave thumbs up or down, squad leaders sent their results to Slingerland, who tabulated the totals, and passed the results on to those at the bargaining table (Ibrahim). Although perhaps a bit unwieldy and time consuming, the high degree of direct communication and union democracy helped maintain the strikers’ solidarity and morale when the situation appeared bleak.
Perhaps the situation seemed bleakest on Monday, March 31 when Tom Buckley, CCTA Board Chair announced that the Board had authorized its staff “to secure temporary drivers until the negotiation is resolved.” This decision, endorsed by a 12-1 margin, was arrived at in executive session earlier that day; ironically, just previous to that meeting, a public hearing was held in which about 45 people spoke, most in support of the drivers (Brown 2014). Although it was not clear how soon replacement drivers might be deployed, Buckley said the authorization was “designed to try to get transit service on the street as quickly as possible.” While Buckley declared that he could not “predict” how the bus drivers would react, he characterized the resolution as “the Board trying to take responsibility for making sure that it’s examined all of our options for restoring service (Murray 2014a).”
While CCTA’s announcement caused some consternation for the drivers, it was too late to affect the successful execution of the strike. On Wednesday, April 2 negotiators from both sides met with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, Jeb Spaulding of the Administration Agency, and Phil Fiermonte, outreach director for Senator Bernie Sanders (Davis 2014a). The day prior, even before drivers had a chance to formally respond to Buckley’s pronouncement regarding the possible hiring of scabs, Shumlin had encouraged drivers and management to reach a settlement, citing “the most vulnerable Vermonters, who can’t get to work [and] kids who can’t get to doctors…” and concluded “we’ve got to get this thing resolved (Dobbs 2014).” With the tide turned in favor of the drivers, it was time for Vermont’s political establishment to weigh in and bring the strike to a conclusion. Statements of support for a settlement were coming in from around the state. While Sanders referred to “the very difficult time for bus commuters in Chittenden County,” Shumlin stated that “Vermonters have lost their patience and … it [the strike] needs to be resolved now (Davis 2014a; Murray 2014d.)” But, as a result of that Wednesday meeting, the governor also said that he “heard the drivers’ frustration over working conditions and management relations,” and said he was “committed to helping in any way I can to help forge a better environment for workers going forward (Davis 2014a).”
With negotiations resuming that evening, drivers’ negotiator Nate Bergeron reported being “optimistic” heading into the meeting. “Progress did come out of it,” he said; “The governor’s been brought up to speed [on the issues]. He’s trying to see if a resolution can be worked out.” By this time, the discipline and anonymous complaint issues had been tentatively resolved, and the union had indicated that they would move regarding the use of part-timers. The “sticking point” was still the length of the drivers’ split-shift workdays (Murray 2014d). At about 3:00 am, Thursday April 3, however, CCTA management surrendered their demand for a 13.5-hour workday and accepted a cap at 12.5 hours. In return, the drivers had conceded to the company license to hire up to 15 part-time drivers, “a pill” that St. Hilaire called “hard to swallow,” because the drivers “believe in full-time jobs with benefits.” Bergeron, however, stated the drivers were “happy with it — we do what the majority wants — and I’m satisfied with it too. We achieved our goal on the spread.” Later that day both sides overwhelmingly ratified the agreement; the strike that united the community was done (Davis 2014a).
Drivers and supporters celebrated their new contract with a late afternoon rally on Church Street April 3, and were back to work on Friday, April 4. Although not everyone in the community supported the strike, feelings of joy and relief were widespread as the buses began rolling again – automobile drivers honked their horns and bus riders high-fived or fist bumped drivers upon boarding. As a gesture of goodwill, CCTA canceled fares until April 13 (Walsh 2014). Drivers were in high spirits, if some a bit bleary-eyed, knowing that their efforts and unity had succeeded in keeping their workdays at 12.5 hours and in tightening their contract to restrict predatory managerial practices.
Five months after the strike ended, driver Jim Fouts reported a “completely different atmosphere” on the buses and at the CCTA offices. Fouts pointed to the now open doors of CCTA offices as symbolic of a more relaxed environment surrounding CCTA operations with less surveillance and fewer punitive actions by management. Although Fouts noted recalcitrance exhibited by some board members, he believes that overall labor-management relations are “good and going forward.” Statistics regarding company discipline agree with Fouts’ assessment.
Whereas before the strike CCTA management averaged three disciplinary actions filed against drivers weekly, there was zero filed during the first seven weeks following the strike (Fleckenstein 2014). Rob Slingerland concurred with Fouts, testifying that the new environment is evidence that the company wants to move forward. Slingerland cites as evidence the inclusion of drivers in company operations, including the hiring of a new General Manager. Bill Watterson has resigned from CCTA, effective September 15, 2014 (Murray 2014c). Although it is doubtful anyone really enjoyed being on strike for 18 days during an exceptionally cold late Vermont winter, most drivers confirm that, if conditions were the same, they’d do it again (Fouts; Ibrahim; Slingerland).
One of the most important results produced by the strike was the creation of Vermont Labor Solidarity (VLS), a collection of activists evolving from the “We Support the CCTA Drivers” group. VLS meets regularly to discuss the local labor situation and coordinate efforts to assist workers and unions. The group currently numbers 199 members (Vermont Labor Solidarity 2014). VLS has already engaged in a contract struggle for Burlington mental health workers, and is currently supporting striking FairPoint communications workers, and UVM professors campaigning for a fair contract . Existing plans include sponsoring a Labor Notes’ “Troublemakers’ School” this fall to raise awareness and expectations for rank and file, and helping unionized nurses negotiate a new contract in 2015 (Smith).
The Vermont bus drivers’ strike of 2014 set a new standard for labor contract organizing in the “Green Mountain State.” Labor activists hoping to emulate the success of CCTA’s drivers can certainly take a few winning principles from the drivers’ successful campaign. First, the drivers formed a rock-solid united contingent during the buildup and throughout the strike. Although this unity – which twice produced unanimous rejections of management’s contract proposals – certainly was not a given at the time of the first solidarity meetings, it was carefully crafted through a combination of internal democracy and personal contact.
The growth of driver unity and democracy was a long-term development starting with the advent of the Sunday “Breakfast Club” in 2009 (Fouts). According to Mike Walker, he started looking around at the people who were interested in making … a better place to work.” Those were the drivers who began networking, researching, learning and discussing the transformation of their union into “a rank and file-led organization with real power in the workplace (Fleckenstein).” The formation of the “Breakfast Club” helped to establish the drivers’ consensus regarding community safety and workplace dignity embraced by much of the public. The drivers’ commitment to democratic principles remained evident during the strike buildup and throughout the work stoppage. Members were kept abreast of strike and negotiations developments almost as they happened, and weighed in on all union decisions. Unlike in many unions where a kind of “democracy by consent” pays lip service to real democratic decision-making, the CCTA drivers know their opinions matter (Fouts; Walsh 2013: 19). In the words of driver Noor Ibrahim, “It was members who pushed the leaders” to the strike’s successful conclusion.
While internal democracy was vital for building and maintaining unity, it was the nearly constant interpersonal communication between drivers of various levels of responsibility – rank and file, squad leaders, communications liaison Slingerland, stewards and negotiators, and IBT business agent St. Hilaire – that was indispensable (Fleckenstein). While Fouts points to antagonistic managerial policies during the buildup as doing “much of our organizing for us,” he credits the “always open” and “active lines of communication” within the union for keeping the drivers together. Fouts’ analysis of the importance of communication in keeping people together during the buildup and strike echoes the words of AFSCME organizer Kris Rondeau regarding her work at Harvard during the late 1980s – “the union must have a relationship with every single person in the workplace (Oppenheim 1991: 47).” Ibrahim was more specific in his analysis of communication’s importance; he stated that the continuous consultation among drivers “stressed the common purpose” they shared with the community. He believes that the near-constant transmission of information among union members was essential in keeping “everyone on the same page” among a swirling barrage of misinformation, rumors and propaganda. Of course, sustaining this communications network during the heat of the strike did not occur by accident. Slingerland explained, “One issue we worked on is communication. We found it to be the most challenging thing … [it] is all about the one on one (Fleckenstein).”
Although business agent Tony Hilaire played an important role for the drivers during the strike, tangible assistance from IBT Local 597 was scant and slow to arrive. Unlike the scenarios described by Teresa Sharpe, union staff did not make room or even encourage member engagement; in fact, it seemed to Mike Walker during the buildup that “The union [bureaucracy] was fighting us as well. They just want us to sit there and get a contract signed (Fleckenstein; Sharpe 2004].” The disconnect between what drivers wanted and 597’s leadership’s motives led to the “Breakfast Club’s” formation in the first place, and union officers had been hostile to the drivers’ movement towards democracy and activism, as mentioned previously, for years. The local attempted for weeks to demobilize the drivers, prevent a strike and force a concessionary contract on them. But the drivers were able to organize, with the help of the solidarity group, independently. It was only after numerous overwhelming rejections of management’s proposals, and waiting for union staffers to return from vacations during the week leading up to the strike, that they eventually succeeded in getting state Teamster officials to authorize their walkout (Fleckenstein). In the presence of such a strong and united front, and unlike his predecessor in 2011, St. Hilaire effectively worked with the drivers and respected their democratically produced decisions (Fouts).
In the process of transforming their union, drivers came to realize that some of the accepted practices of modern-day service unionism worked against their interests. Although gag orders regarding labor negotiations are common if not practically de rigueur today, agreeing to one made it more difficult for them to build public support. The agreement to remain silent cost the drivers valuable time, when they could have begun getting their message out to the public, a delay that made it easier for the company to ply the community with misinformation and propaganda (Smith). The union had to work constantly to dispel the myth that the strike was about pay and benefits, consciously and consistently staying on message that it was “not about the money (Fouts).” Although the threat of replacement drivers did not appear until late in the strike, the gag order would have made it difficult to prepare for “scabs” if the company planned to employ them from the beginning (Smith).
Another common union practice to fall by the wayside during the strike was any reliance on politicians. From the beginning of the buildup and throughout the strike, appealing to Burlington’s political establishment was never a priority for the drivers (Fleckenstein). The city’s Democrat-controlled council took a variety of approaches to dealing with the strike, from ignoring it and pleading neutrality the first week, to its resolution for binding arbitration the second. Although drivers’ testimony at that March 26 meeting “shamed” some councilors and changed some minds, Mayor Weinberger then clandestinely tried to pressure CCTA management to offer a fair contract if drivers agreed to end their strike first. The drivers rejected this grandstanding attempt to end their strike short of having a satisfactory contract in place (Fleckenstein; Smith).
Although Burlington, like most of Vermont, has a reputation for liberalism and progressive politics, the neoliberal dynamic of cutting labor costs and weakening workers’ power is evident there as it is elsewhere (Fleckenstein; Grace and McQuade). Service and infrastructure workers, like bus drivers are being targeted by employers who seek to reduce costs by employing part-time workers, and weakening or destroying their unions; unlike manufacturing jobs, transportation services cannot be moved to other locations, (Fantasia and Voss 122-24). Was CCTA Chairman Spencer’s statement about “business as usual” a not-so-thinly veiled reference to an attempt to squeeze drivers in order to “deliver desired outcomes”? After all, labor costs are often the only expense management can attempt to control, and this strategy has been used elsewhere, among teachers and other public sector workers in recent years (Aronowicz 2011; Bradbury et al. 2014: 96-99). Unions represent a deterrent to businesses seeking a compliant, low-wage workforce; the drivers’ union could be a strong obstacle to the committee’s somewhat grandiose plans. Such a scenario happened before in Vermont – in 2002, management at the Montpelier-based GMTA tried to impose an open shop on its drivers by attempting to bargain outside the union (Vermont Labor Relations Board 2004). The resulting strike led eventually to union decertification (Grace and McQuade). In order to make Burlington a better place for business, it would be important to neutralize labor’s capacity to resist austerity (Fleckenstein; Grace). In any case, Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington City Council did little to advance the drivers’ cause (Fleckenstein).
A number of elected officials were in the drivers’ corner from the outset, but it was the strike itself – especially the unity displayed between strikers and the community – that drew more prominent politicians, including Governor Shumlin and Senator Sanders. While the support from them and others did seem to help bring the strike to its successful conclusion, it is plain that it surfaced only with the drivers’ demonstration, with broad community backing, of their capacity to sustain a strike shutting down public bus transportation in Vermont’s largest city and county – according to Jim Fouts, “Bernie waited to see which way the wind was blowing” before stepping in (Fleckenstein; Fouts).
Another important lesson is the importance of coalition building, with other unionized workers, students and the community in general. Drivers knew from the beginning that a strike would be virtually unwinnable without the public behind them; according to Fouts, “We needed the community on our side to win.” To garner that support, drivers continually stressed that their strike was about safety, human rights and dignity. They reached out and maintained “active lines of communications” with the community; drivers, individually and in pairs addressed students, other unions, religious and community organizations (Fouts). The drivers’ struggle, during its course, became as much about livable jobs, the rights of new immigrants, and predatory management across the state and country as it was about CCTA drivers’ issues. Slingerland recounted, “You have all these different unions and groups, but the fight is the same … [when] it starts affecting one group … it affects all of us.” Tristin Adie, a unionized nurse, reflected “Drivers spoke to what is in the heart of every working person: We can’t take it anymore. We don’t deserve to take it anymore. Their issues are our issues (Fleckenstein).”
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the Vermont bus drivers’ strike of 2014 is the realization that if you strike, you can succeed. Unfortunately, the forty-year neoliberal assault and imposition of austerity measures on American workers has diminished their expectations and dulled their resolve to fight back; in the words of UVM English professor Nancy Welch, “Austerity has … taken a grim toll on our consciousness, our expectations. Austerity attempts to roll back any belief that we can defend ourselves (Fleckenstein).” As a result, concessionary contracts have become the norm, while union officials too often have sought to maintain “labor peace,” and their jobs, at the expense of members’ wellbeing. In this era of labor’s retreat, workers’ fear of losing even more, and falling even deeper in the “race to the bottom” has become a major obstacle to fighting back (Cohen and Hurd 1998). Rob Slingerland admitted that before the buildup and strike, “… fear kept me from doing what I needed to do.”
The CCTA drivers, in striking and winning, have proven that workers, with enough resolve and proper preparation can succeed. In order to do so, the drivers’ union had to go back to organized labor’s roots, and build both workplace solidarity and sturdy connections to the community; they had to organize and execute a successful 18-day strike (Smith). With much help from the solidarity committee and the community, the drivers worked to ensure that everyone was “willing to go all the way for the contract they wanted (Slingerland).” They had to overcome brutal winter cold, an unsympathetic media and an unfriendly political establishment. Most of all, they had to overcome their own fear. But feeling “pushed to the wall,” and realizing that they could not win if they did not fight, these drivers found the courage to resist and, according to Welch, strike “a blow against diminished expectations (Fleckenstein; Slingerland).” It took an epic, heroic struggle, but once the decision was made, when the drivers became “brave enough to fight” and felt the solidarity of others with them, they learned that they could refuse to quit, and refuse to be defeated. Together, they learned that they could win.
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