OAK BLUFFS — Bus drivers on Martha’s Vineyard went on strike Friday morning, less than a week before thousands of visitors will flock to the island to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Striking drivers, along with drivers who traveled from Fall River and New Bedford in support, greeted visitors by encouraging them not to use the buses outside the Steamship Authority’s Oak Bluffs ferry terminal driven by replacement workers.
“Bus company’s on strike, consider a cab,” driver Charlie Smith shouted to a group of a dozen beachgoers carrying bags and lawn chairs at the Ocean Park bus stop near the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal.
But cab driver Toni Cook said the strike hasn’t increased her business. Instead, many visitors and residents are getting around on a tour bus operated by a local business owner.
On Friday morning, picketers threw money into a hat so Dolores “Dee Dee” Borza, owner of the Vineyard tour bus company HomeGrown Tours, could buy gas to take people around the island in lieu of the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority buses, which are currently being driven by 23 nonunion drivers and managers.
Bus driver Jason Chalifoux said he’s glad Borza is keeping money out of the company’s pocket.
“They may have drivers out there,” he said. “But if the buses are empty, what are they paying people for?”
Chalifoux, who has been driving on the island for 11 years, said the community has supported the drivers by offering carpool rides to island workers via a community Facebook group.
“It’s going to last as long as it takes,” he said of the strike. “It’s up to them. We will be out here until we have our contract.”
On the far-off cliffs of Aquinnah, Julianne Vanderhoop said the cluster of shops in Aquinnah Circle has seen smaller crowds as a result of the strike. Businesses in the remote area usually see between 600 and 2,000 people per day during peak season, she said.
Vanderhoop, who chairs the board of selectmen, owns two businesses on the cliffs, Orange Peel Bakery and Orange Peel Café, and said her employees are already struggling to make the bus connections they need to get to work.
“We need to make this come to an end, quick,” she said from behind the counter.
Nancy Gardella, executive director for the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are scrambling to adjust employees’ schedules and some hotels are arranging transportation for guests to and from the ferry.
Bus service on the island will be limited but not shut down. The Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority said the strike will affect night service and routes with lower ridership the most.
Buses transport visitors around the Vineyard to shops and restaurants in all six of the island’s towns as well as to the ferry and the beach, while locals rely on buses to get to and from work.
The strike comes four years into a labor dispute with Transit Connection Inc., a Florida-based contractor for the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority.
The drivers voted to strike in April over wages and health insurance, which currently does not cover spouses or children.
Wages start at $16.50 an hour and top off at $23.50 an hour after 14 years of service, a salary that drivers say is unsustainable considering the wealthy island’s high cost of living.
TCI offered an immediate $2- to $4-per-hour wage increase in May, double time on holidays, and increased personal time off, which the Transit Authority said would require it to reduce service by up to 6 percent. The union refused the deal and asked for negotiations to continue.
On Thursday, a federal mediator attempted to bring together TCI and the Amalgamated Transit Union, but the company said it could not get its negotiating team together on short notice and the union refused a conference call, according to the company.
TCI later found a labor relations consultant who could meet Friday afternoon, but the union said if talks didn’t start at 8 a.m. Friday the strike would begin.