Stop and Go Negotiations in Alabama, as ‘Crimson Ride’ Drivers Push for Better Wages

Kari Lydersen

Many University of Alabama students had a hard time getting around Tuscaloosa early this week, but those supporting striking bus drivers definitely didn’t mind.

The union bus drivers who ferry students around the school’s flagship campus there went on strike at 5 a.m. this past Monday, after months of contentious contract negotiations with the Ohio-based private company, First Transit, which runs the Crimson Ride” service. (Crimson is one of the schools official colors.)

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) drivers say the $9.50 per hour they are paid is not a living wage — and comparably less than what drivers for the same company are paid in other cities. The university pays First Transit $55.50 for each driver work hour; drivers get no pay on university breaks and holidays and have a $10,000 cap on medical benefits.

Drivers went back to the negotiating table with First Transit on Tuesday, to no avail: On Wednesday, the university locked drivers out, reducing service by two-thirds and sending home drivers who reported for work,” Labor Notes reports. Although many of the 60 unionized bus drivers did not honor Monday’s strike, during which the university operated scab vans,” some drivers have said they are willing to resume the strike if there is no satisfactory contract outcome. Local media quoted ATU steward Tia Brown:

I’m hoping they didn’t just bring us back to the table for no reason. I pray that they brought us back to the table for something worthwhile that the members consider to be fair. Whether the negotiations go good or bad, the ultimate decision is in the members’ hands.

Students have fervently supported the strike, walking and biking instead of taking buses or vans and handing out fliers about the strike. A campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has helped rally support for the drivers. The drivers’ struggle gained national attention over the past few months, thanks largely to the Network to Fight for Economic Justice (NFEJ), and people from around the country have called the university president to demand a living wage and better benefits for the drivers.

Contract negotiations ground to a halt a few weeks ago, when the company made its offer (which the union called insulting”): a 17-cent raise, with no change in benefits or the clause that allows drivers to be fired at any time.

Some Crimson Ride bus drivers did continue to drive during the strike, including nonunion drivers hired after May 2009, when about 60 drivers voted unanimously to unionize. (Alabama is a so-called right to work” state where employees in a unionized workplace are not obligated to join the union.) The university administration also dispatched vans staffed by university employees on the Crimson Ride routes — strikers called them scab vans.”

Driven to strike for higher wages

In the past decade, there have been many bus driver strikes around the country, including drivers of city buses and school buses. Often, as at the University of Alabama, privatization is to blame for low and inequitable wages. In 2002, school bus drivers in Los Angeles employed by the private firm Laidlaw went on strike over the fact they made only $8.25 an hour, while drivers employed directly by the school district made more than double that. The Laidlaw drivers were represented by the Teamsters, the district drivers by SEIU.

In 2005, 600 New York drivers employed by the private company Liberty Lines were on strike for weeks regarding retirement and benefits issues. As often happens, government and company officials tried to pit the public against the drivers. The Militant newspaper reported that County transportation commissioner Larry Salley recently blamed the strike for children whose education is being jeopardized, elderly people trapped in apartments, and people that can’t get to work.”

But despite this common strategy, alliances between drivers and riders – like the students’ support of the Tuscaloosa strikers – have become increasingly common in recent years.

In Los Angeles in 2000, a major 32-day strike of city bus drivers ended fairly successfully for drivers, thanks in part to the formation of a powerful rider-driver alliance. In a story about that struggle, journalist David Bacon (an occasional contribuitor to this website) describes the larger significance – a new political truth” — of the L.A. rider-driver alliance, which brought together largely Latino immigrant riders and largely African American drivers.

The city’s low-wage workers showed themselves willing to defend higher wage-earners. Latinos made common cause with African-Americans. Drivers came out against service cuts directed against working class bus riders, while rail service for suburban commuters eats up precious transit dollars.

A rider-driver alliance has also been active in Chicago, where the transit authority (CTA) implemented massive doomsday” service cuts and announced extensive lay-offs last month.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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