In recent years, Grand Rapids, Michigan has gained a reputation as a leader in environmental sustainability, with numerous LEED-certified buildings, an increased number of bicycle paths and an improved public bus system with new routes and more frequent stops after voters approved a recent transit millage.
In 2013, Grand Rapids was named the city with the best mid-size transportation system in the country, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Last year, The Rapid, as the city’s bus system is known, finished an upgraded bus garage facility that also garnered LEED certification status.
Pretty impressive. But for the drivers behind the wheel of this top-of-the-line fleet, not all is well: Grand Rapids bus drivers are without a signed union contract, because city officials want to cut their pension funds. One Rapid board member has called the current pension system a “terrible plan” and claims the board wants to “do better” for drivers, the board claims the pension fund is $2.6 million in the red. The drivers disagree.
Over the past few months the Amalgamated Transit Union of Grand Rapids (ATUGR Local 836) has been confronting the local transit authority (The Rapid), its board members and elected officials from Grand Rapids and surrounding communities, many of which contribute taxes to the bus system.
Last week, I spoke with some of the rank-and-file bus drivers for The Rapid as they prepared for another action in defense of their pensions. Peter Ricketson, a member of ATUGR Local 836, told me, “The Rapid wants to get rid of the Defined Benefit Plan because they believe it is in peril. We don’t think that is the case. Even if it was in peril, they should allow us to chip in 20 cents an hour in addition to the $1.00 an hour [The Rapid] already chips in from our wages. They will not agree to this or any other amount.”
The ATUGR has proposed to put an additional amount into the Defined Benefit Plan, because they believe this plan is stronger than the Defined Contribution Plan, which doesn’t have a strong track record nationally and is less stable. Despite the drivers’ offer to pay for the plan, they say The Rapid is refusing to allow them to do so.
“They are saying they want us to accept a Defined Contribution Plan or nothing. It’s like having a conversation with my three-year-old,” Ricketson adds. “This is not a negotiation, it is a strong-arm tactic. In fact, we would simply call it union busting.”
I followed the drivers to East Grand Rapids, one of the wealthiest parts of the city, where they planned to pass out flyers in Amna Seibold’s neighborhood. Seibold is both the mayor of East Grand Rapids and a member of the Rapid’s board. She has been a vocal opponent of the ATUGR’s pension plan.
The drivers went to Seibold’s house first to share a flyer and engage the Rapid board member. She answered the door but was not interested in having a conversation with the bus drivers; instead, Seibold acted in what the drivers say was a very condescending manner, then accused them of being unwilling to negotiate their contract. After leaving Seibold’s house, the drivers passed out the flyer in her neighborhood.
The drivers’ literature accused Rapid management of three things:
- They raised bus fares by 16%, making it as expensive to ride a bus here as it is in L.A.
- They are cutting retirement security for bus workers, including those near retirement.
- They then turned around and raised The Rapid CEO’s salary to $203,000!
Seibold has characterized pensions as an “antiquated system” of retirement security in the past.
Calling pensions “antiquated” is harsh, but it fits within the larger project of imposing austerity measures in Michigan. In 2013, Michigan became a “right-to-work” state, when Gov. Rick Snyder rammed through legislation just before the holiday recess at the end of 2012.
In 2011, when Snyder began his first round of austerity measures in Michigan, he visited Grand Rapids to announce the plan, since the city was already a model for implementing such anti-worker/anti-public policies. Grand Rapids had for years been downsizing public staff, cutting worker benefits and pensions and privatizing public services. Snyder made conditions for “revenue sharing” (when the state gives back tax money to individual communities), which called for cities throughout Michigan to institute similar austerity policies.
This is the context in which The Rapid’s management decided not to negotiate with ATUGR Local 836. Todd Brogan, Field Mobilization Specialist with the national Amalgamated Transit Union, characterized The Rapid’s actions as not only a form of union busting, but a kind of disaster capitalism.
“They created a crisis that didn’t exist, with the hope that you can sway public opinion to support the further erosion of the public sector,” he says.
So far, that strategy hasn’t work. The ATUGR has not only mobilized its members to attend Rapid board meetings, but has also organized bus riders, other unions in West Michigan and other supporters who are angry that their bus fare has increased while the CEO of The Rapid, Peter Varga, has received a raise of $4,000 and the bus drivers are being attacked. Activists from Grand Valley State University’s United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapter recently organized a flashmob in support of the ATUGR and marched with bus drivers during the annual art spectacle known as ArtPrize.
In recent months, ATUGR members and their allies have filled public meetings demanding the transit authority return to the negotiating table in good faith. Bus drivers on their own time began handing out informational flyers at the city’s central bus station to inform the public about their contract negotiations — only to have The Rapid threaten to have workers fired for passing out leaflets. The ATUGR took Rapid management to court, where a judge decided in their favor, saying that they were being denied their first amendment rights.
The campaign in Grand Rapids to defend workers rights and protect pensions has even garnered the support of Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who released a statement in support of the campaign.
Grand Rapids has an astonishing high poverty rate of 26%, far higher than the national average, which makes maintaining these middle class jobs and benefits more important than ever. When you raise the fares by 16% in the same meeting that you give the CEO a $4,000 a year raise, there’s a problem. You are taking from the working people of Grand Rapids to give more to the wealthy. This is making inequality in Grand Rapids worse.
As of this writing, the drivers’ organizing appeared to be paying off: The Rapid has agreed to come back to the bargaining table. Drivers I spoke to were optimistic but cautious. Many say they care not only about their jobs, but about the strength of the public transit system in West Michigan. Many of the rank-and-file workers say they helped to get the word out about the 2014 transit millage and feel a sense of pride in making a successful case to voters to support an increase public money for the greater Grand Rapids bus system.
ATUGR President RiChard Jackson said this campaign has galvanized the bus drivers union and created greater solidarity with other unions and community groups from West Michigan. “We are not just in this battle to fight, but to win,” Jackson says. “My union and my workers truly believe that.”