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Transit Workers’ Struggle in a Pandemic

From PPE to Class-wide Demands

April 15, 2020

When the pandemic first hit, Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway urged everyone to remain calm, suggesting that things would remain normal. In a series of memos, she insisted that the City was committed to maintaining full services and that we would all get through this. At this point, bus drivers were already growing anxious with so much public contact, and noticeably more people displaying symptoms of the virus. (In Wisconsin, we’re at 3,555 “confirmed” cases and 170 deaths.) Drivers requested to wear medical masks and obtain hand sanitizer, both of which were denied. We’d been told by management that anyone wearing a mask while operating in public would face discipline.

The weekend of March 14, we had two drivers quarantined, and management tried to keep it secret. For liability reasons, they contacted six drivers who were seen in proximity to the person in quarantine and asked them to get tested. But these workers were also told that this was just a precaution because no one had yet tested positive. The City made a recommendation that all employees who are able should telecommute, but that if you were unable to perform job duties, you would have to use your personal time (sick or vacation days) to cover your absence or face discipline. This got a lot of workers riled up since it was really only available to professional employees. It had the effect of penalizing workers with more blue-collar jobs.

Transit workers started talking with each other over Facebook, with the six people who were contacted furious that management waited days before telling them anything about seeing their doctors. The conversation started getting much more direct about what we would need to do to stay safe. This included not just drivers, but also mechanics, who would be servicing buses; clerical workers (like myself), who handle all of the cash that comes off of the buses; and customer service workers in direct contact with the public. This conversation soon migrated to a messenger thread, and a set of demands was put together, as well as ideas for coordinated action – not unlike what ended up happening with drivers in Detroit.

Management continued to make no further promises on safety – only that they would do their best. While we won many of the leave demands, the safety issues were all swept under the rug.

What came together was a first petition, where we connected as transit workers to other city agencies (libraries, parking ramp, streets, sanitation, water, and so forth). We specifically sought solidarity with other city workers beyond our own union and tried to articulate class-wide demands. We demanded:

  1. safety at work;
  2. additional paid leave in line with the CDC quarantine period;
  3. no discipline for workers who are absent to take care of themselves or their families;
  4. any agencies that are closed must guarantee full pay and benefits to workers without drawing from personal leave; and
  5. any worker with a confirmed case must be paid for the duration of the condition.


We put that together and then decided to organize a meeting where we demanded upper management attend that Monday morning, March 16. We packed the driver lounge with as many as we could, and management came immediately after being summoned. We asked our questions and raised our demands but were told that they would make no commitments and that they would “do their best.” We responded that we wanted an answer by 3 pm. They replied that this would not be possible.

Anticipating such a response, we released the petition to the mayor and all alders in conjunction with a press release that we sent to all local news outlets. A friendly reporter put together a great article within hours that boosted the story. By 7pm that evening, the City announced that they were making changes in line with nearly all of our demands. (They of course painted it as if it were their own idea.) Management is freaking out since local news outlets have framed the narrative clearly in terms of transit workers versus the mayor. They’re under sustained pressure, and they want to stop any more public scrutiny.

Management said they would come back every day at 9 am to give updates for better communication. Our business agent from Local 695 said he would start coming as well, where we had heard literally nothing from the local by this point. Our assessment was that both the city and the union were embarrassed that they were outflanked and wanted to regain the upper hand. Management continued to make no further promises on safety – only that they would do their best. While we won many of the leave demands, the safety issues were all swept under the rug, so we kept pushing.

This signals the importance of class-wide demands and the extent to which they can even aid in making gains in one’s own workplace.

We raised the ongoing issue of bathrooms (even before the crisis, but especially now with businesses closed), the need for masks and safety gear, a limited route schedule, and a demand to end fare collection and only allow passengers to enter and exit through the rear door to limit exposure. Management said they would not do that, but they would deploy porta potties. We responded that this was insufficient, with female drivers especially vocal about their need for real toilets and facilities.

On Thursday, a new pick went up to redeploy the workforce on a limited schedule. Local 695 appears to have approved it, with management being allowed to sidestep important provisions of our contract for the duration. The local then made a statement that they were responsible for the things we had won through organizing. Conversations among transit workers continued the whole time, and bus drivers explicitly asked to put together a second petition to emphasize safety, as well as hazard pay in line with what we have seen from other essential workers. In 36 hours, we had over 1000 signatures from transit workers, family members, and community members. This is particularly impressive given Madison’s small population: 250,000 overall with 400 Teamsters at the agency.

Both the City and Local 695 clearly became aware of these developments since the campaign was gaining so much steam. Local 695 finally promoted the petition on their Facebook page, but they claimed credit for it and said the business agents had been working for these demands around the clock – again, something none of us at the rank and file level have any reason to believe. The City tried to get out in front of it quickly before it embarrassed them again, so they announced Monday morning that we would be going to back door entry only with no fare collection effective Tuesday, March 24. Other safety and hazard pay concerns remain to be resolved.

The key point here is that we have been able to actually win some important demands, and not just for ourselves but for all City workers. This signals the importance of class-wide demands and the extent to which they can even aid in making gains in one’s own workplace.




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