Four years into a labor dispute, bus drivers on Martha’s Vineyard are threatening to strike in advance of Memorial Day weekend, an action that could wreak havoc on the island’s public transportation system just as the summer tourist season gets underway.
Buses transport people all over the Vineyard — to the ferry, to the beach, to shops and restaurants in all six of the island’s towns — and if service is disrupted it would be “devastating,” according to the local Chamber of Commerce director, for visitors, business owners, and employees who need to get to work.
The looming strike comes on the heels of the 11-day action by 31,000 Stop & Shop workers that crippled the supermarket chain. Last year, about 485,000 people were involved in work stoppages, the highest number since 1986, winning gains for many workers, including a blockbuster contract for Marriott hotel workers in Boston and around the country.
The Vineyard bus drivers, who voted to authorize a strike in April, are fighting for higher wages. Wages currently start around $16.50 an hour and top off at $23.50 an hour after 14 years of service, a rate they say is unsustainable given the high cost of living on the island. They are also looking to expand their health insurance plan, which does not cover spouses or children; establish seniority that allows longtime drivers to pick choice shifts; and set up a review process for terminations.
The next negotiating session is set to begin May 29, but the drivers are meeting Thursday night and could decide to take action over the holiday weekend, one of the three busiest times of year on the island, along with July Fourth and Labor Day. Last year, ridership numbers topped 19,000 from Friday through Monday of Memorial Day weekend, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority. Overall, ridership is about 1.3 million people a year.
The union that represents the drivers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, describes the situation as a social justice issue.
“You have on the island of Martha’s Vineyard the most outrageous example of inequality in the United States,” said Bruce Hamilton, an ATU international vice president. “Just unimaginable wealth is down there, and then you have a working class that is just really pressed hard, and they often find it really difficult to maintain shelter and food.”
But the drivers’ employer, Transit Connection Inc., a Florida-based contractor for the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority, said the workers’ demands are in “outer space.” TCI’s annual payroll budget is $2.2 million, said president Edward Pigman, which is provided by the transit authority and covers labor costs, and the drivers are asking for an additional $3.7 million, including back wages.
“They’re so far, far out in space here that it’s difficult to even have a beginning point,” Pigman said. “We’ve been knocking our heads against a cement wall here.”
Over the course of a proposed five-year contract, the company has offered to raise wages 18 to 29 percent for drivers who have been there nine years or less. Longtime drivers would get less of an increase, with wages maxing out at $24.71 an hour after 10 years.
These wages are commensurate with what other municipal services offer on Martha’s Vineyard, Pigman said, adding that TCI is limited in what it can pay drivers by the amount provided to the company by the transit authority, which is funded by public money and passenger fares.
The union, which has proposed that drivers get to $34 an hour after five years, and also get an annual 3 percent raise, said that TCI “is by no means constrained by their current labor budget.” It added that drivers have not had raises in nearly five years.
“If the agency wants to maintain a quality workforce and offer a decent service to the community, they have to come up with the money to do that,” Hamilton said.
MBTA drivers in Boston, who are represented by the same union, get $36 after five years, and drivers for Worcester’s transit authority can get up to $30, according to the union.
About 37 TCI drivers work year-round, with about 25 more hired for the summer.
This is the Vineyard drivers’ second attempt to get a contract since TCI took over the island bus service 16 years ago. After drivers voted to unionize in 2003, contract negotiations dragged on for more than a year before the drivers voted to decertify the union. At the time, drivers told the ATU they were enticed by promises from TCI to vote down the union, a charge the company denies.
In 2015, they voted to unionize again, only to get locked in a battle over disputed election results and unfair labor practices that went on for years. Finally, in September, the two sides sat down to negotiate an initial contract. A few months ago, a federal mediator got involved.
But the drivers are losing patience, said Richard Townes, 68, a Vineyard native who has worked for the transit authority for 23 years and is on the negotiating committee.
“My job is basically to keep [drivers] from parking the buses and walking away,” said Townes, who has been with the bus company full time since retiring from his job driving a propane truck eight years ago.
TCI’s low wages are making it difficult to hire seasonal drivers, he said.
Last summer, the company was so short-staffed that some drivers were on the road as many as 80 hours a week, Townes said, adding that word is out that TCI will “work you like you’re a rented mule.”
The Department of Transportation forbids workers from driving more than 60 hours in a seven-day period, and Pigman disputed the 80-hour claim as “absurd,” though he admitted there were driver shortages.
Townes has been meeting with town administrators, selectmen, and state representatives, and said support from the community is high. People have even been calling and asking if they can put signs in their yards.
“The way the Stop & Shop thing turned out, I believe it does help,” he said, noting that some of the drivers stood on the picket line with Vineyard supermarket workers during the recent strike.
The business community is “very concerned” about the prospect of a strike, said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
A strike could hurt visitors, especially those who come for the day, she said, as well as residents who work in town centers, where parking is prohibited. Public transportation also keeps cars off the road and helps the island retain its natural beauty, Gardella said.
“This is an absolutely critical service,” she said. “If a walk-off happens, it’s going to be devastating.”