By Annie Lloyd and Richard Marcantonio
On July 28, over 40 AC Transit workers and riders spoke up at the AC Transit board meeting to demand transit workers be paid retroactive hazard pay.
After more than an hour of powerful stories, the board directed AC Transit’s labor negotiators to sit down with Local 192 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). This is a major first step for the union to win its demand for back hazard pay. It also happened on the same day that AC Transit learned it would receive a $66 million share in the first payment of federal rescue funds, eliminating any excuse that the agency cannot afford to meet the workers’ demand.
All across California, frontline workers have demanded and won hazard pay during the pandemic, especially in grocery, retail and healthcare workplaces. Transit workers in the Bay Area, though, have not received one penny of extra compensation for continuing to work in life-threatening conditions. Operators have seen their colleagues fall ill and, in some cases, die of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic because their work requires them to engage with the public every day. They have risked their lives and those of their families and have had to endure sometimes violent encounters with passengers who have refused to adhere to public health measures. Their essential status has kept buses moving throughout the pandemic, and workers are now fighting to win the extra compensation they’ve clearly earned providing an essential service.
Hazard Pay Across the Bay
On May 21, ATU 265 president John Courtney issued a public statement calling for back hazard pay. He noted that “lip service” by the San Jose transit agency, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, “to the heroism of our frontline transit workers still has not translated into any kind of hazard or hero compensation.” Heeding the call, over a dozen public speakers—transit workers and riders alike—turned out to VTA’s June 3 board meeting to demand back hazard pay.
By July 13, Courtney was joined by leadership at sister unions at AC Transit and SF MUNI in submitting letters to their agencies’ boards formally raising the demand. ATU Local 192’s letter to the AC Transit board noted that bus operators, mechanics and janitors “did not have the luxury to work safely from home.” It was “these workers—and their riders—whose sacrifice kept AC Transit afloat through this challenging time.”
The letter, joined by labor councils, rider and community groups, and political organizations like East Bay DSA and Sunrise Bay Area, demanded that the agency meet with ATU 192 to work out the terms of a package of back hazard compensation, to be awarded no later than Labor Day.”
Rank-and-file transit workers at ATU 192 and 265 understood that a letter from their union president would not trigger the board to take urgent action, as many union leaders had been demanding hazard pay from the very start of the pandemic. As a result, they organized within and across their locals to bring more pressure to their respective boards. This led to the strong show of force at the July 28 AC Transit meeting, when over forty speakers overwhelmed public comment at the start of the AC Transit board meeting to demand hazard pay. Most were frontline bus operators, janitors, and dispatch workers represented by ATU 192; a half dozen more were members of sister ATU local 265.
The result is that AC Transit’s labor negotiators will meet with ATU 192’s bargaining team to discuss the issue. At the end of the public portion of the meeting, pro-labor Director Jovanka Beckles asked to “put it on the agenda for the public to hear that we’d like to see the general manager sit down with the members to discuss this issue” of hazard pay. The agency’s General Counsel replied that active labor negotiations could not be discussed publicly, but would be brought back to a future closed session.
The timing was ripe for demanding hazard pay, as that morning, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) finally allocated the first phase of the region’s rescue funds, amounting to 60 percent of the region’s share of $1.7 billion. AC Transit’s share is $66 million.
The outcome represents the first time in the Bay Area that a transit union will sit down with management to negotiate over hazard pay.
“It’s Only Coming Up Because We the Workers are Pushing For It”
While transit union presidents have demanded hazard pay, it was rank-and-file workers who organized to win this initial victory.
ATU 192 safety chair Nathaniel Arnold, a bus operator for more than 12 years, told the AC Transit board that “there isn’t a lot of help out here, and this would be a way of showing through your actions that you really care about the operators, service employees, clerks, mechanics and janitors. We are all one.” He pointed out that “while people were at home sheltering in place, we have gone about this business of keeping this transit open and literally putting our lives on the line, not only for us but our families.” He emphasized that “it’s one thing to say ‘hazard pay,’ it’s another thing to do it.”
Arnold said he showed up because he knew how deeply his co-workers desired hazard pay. “Everyone in the union feels this issue strongly, widely and deeply, because they are literally putting their lives on the line,” he said afterwards. “They are putting their families at risk.”
Arnold Aranda, a bus operator, echoed several others when he asked, “why does it take all these people to call into the board meeting to raise the idea of hazard pay?”
Sultana Adams, an assistant shop steward and rank-and-file organizer at ATU 192, thought it was important to make the board understand the human toll of their actions. “It is essential that we continue to come together and share our stories,” she said. “They need to know that we are not line items on their budgets. We are real people that are putting ourselves in harm’s way on a daily basis to keep our cities moving.”
Arnold and Adams joined forces in the fight for hazard pay with their fellow co-workers as well as sisters and brothers at Local 265. Armando Barbosa, an internal organizer at ATU 265, notes that “It was natural for us to join in solidarity with ATU 192, since they’ve been there for us in the past. Plus, our members care about winning hazard pay, too.”
Rachel Garcia-Feezel of ATU 265 encapsulated the show of solidarity at the meeting, saying that “we are over 14 months into this pandemic and [hazard pay] is barely coming up, and it’s only coming up because we, the transit workers, are pushing for it.”
The solidarity extended to other members of the ridership community. Joty Dhaliwal of the People’s Transit Alliance and East Bay DSA referred to a recent poll from UC Berkeley showing that 77% of Californians support legislation requiring employers to provide hazard pay to frontline workers. “We’re not out of the pandemic yet,” she said. ”I think a lot of people within the community really see the dangers that essential workers are facing and see it as a moral argument and right that workers should be receiving hazard pay.”
An Oakland teacher who joined the meeting to comment on another matter chose to begin his comment by echoing the workers’ demand. “First of all,” he started, “I do want to support the bus drivers in getting their hazard pay, I’m a teacher, so I can understand and I can relate, I’m 100% percent behind them.”
The teacher was responding to powerful testimonials from workers themselves. Brandy Donaldson, an operator who has been with AC Transit for five years, described how she “personally ha[s] been attacked by passengers five times.” She said after she was spit on by a passenger, her bosses told her to take an unpaid leave. “We have truly been left out there to fend for ourselves,” she said.
Bianca Ingraham, another operator, spoke about how working on the frontlines “also increased the stress level, on top of what [they’re] already dealing with out there when you have to safely drive on the road.” As part of the job, “you have to remind passengers to wear a mask or do social distancing,” which many operators echoed as a sometimes hostile and dangerous exchange with antagonistic passengers.
Many workers reflected the stress and fear of risking exposure to the virus and spreading it to their families. “I’m taking care of my disabled mother, too,” said operator Lea Walker, who has been with AC Transit for 15 years. “It’s hard to come home and not be sure if I’m gonna pass it on to her.”
How To Spend $1.7 Billion
The renewed fight for hazard pay coincided with news about billions of dollars in federal rescue funds for public transit, including $1.7 billion for the Bay Area. Congress made those funds available on March 11, but the MTC delayed for months making those funds available. Frontline transit workers joined with riders across the region to demand that MTC release those funds to meet urgent needs. Among those needs are restoring service that was slashed with the onset of COVID, reducing fares to bring back ridership, and hiring hundreds of bus operators and mechanics.
Hazard pay is also one of these urgent needs. As the distributions begin to flow to local agencies, rank-and-file workers understand the immediate opportunity to demand that some of the money go towards back hazard pay. A successful fight to gain hazard pay will build power to restore service and reduce fares as well, because creating a better transit system for riders won’t be possible without powerful, organized transit labor.
ATU members and their supporters know that they haven’t won yet. They are turning up the organizing to keep the pressure on, by turning out even more members at the next AC Transit meeting on August 11 at 5 pm. They also plan to bring the issue back to the VTA board at its August 5 meeting at 5:30 pm.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the campaign, and other events being planned.