Posted March 1, 2010
Alabama has one of the highest union densities in the south, and a rich tradition of labor militancy, but it’s still rare that organized labor makes headlines. This week, workers demanded to be heard. On February 28 rank-and-file members of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1208 in Tuscaloosa, voted to strike. Drivers of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Ride transport buses were fed up with British multinational First Transit’s refusal to grant them a decent contract.
After nine months of intermittent negotiations, First Transit had offered the drivers a 17 cent raise from $9.50 to $9.67 an hour–an insult to drivers who had been promised much more. The company refused to offer affordable benefits and wanted to retain the right to fire the drivers without cause. The drivers also noted unsafe conditions, including poorly maintained buses and badly needed repairs First Transit refused to pay for. Of course, that’s capitalism for you–generating profits by stealing value and putting workers at risk.
At 5am on March 1, around 40 Crimson Ride drivers, students and union representatives gathered to picket in front of First Transit’s Tuscaloosa headquarters. Though it was freezing by Alabama standards, the camaraderie was infectious and coffee kept bodies warm. Some drivers arrived for work, but were quickly talked out of crossing the picket line and donned red ATU shirts in solidarity. A few scabs did cross, but only 6 of 17 buses went out and at least 3 of these were operated by management.
On campus, the disruption in service was immediately evident. Almost everyone was walking. Even though the university coerced some of their employees to drive shuttle vans to compensate for the loss of bus service, many students boycotted Crimson Ride altogether. Students and faculty rallied on the steps of the library to support the drivers, then broke into teams to convince students to stay off the buses and
vans. At the same time, calls poured in to UA president Witt’s office in support of the drivers.
The university was clearly intimidated. That afternoon, UA admonished First Transit to restart talks, and around 2:30, the company told the ATU they’re willing to come back to the table. The drivers were elated. Still, it remains to be seen whether or not the strike was a success. ATU Vice President Kenneth Kirk said he “remained a pessimist,” but believed the company would offer more than it had