Intolerable Conditions Drive ‘Shortages,’ Transit Workers Say
Why are public transit operators struggling to retain workers and hire new ones? Workers at AC Transit say one major factor is intolerable working conditions—overwork, inadequate breaks, safety hazards, and a pervasive culture of disrespect.
And these problems affect not only workers, but also bus riders across California’s East Bay. Every week many scheduled runs are canceled without notice when there’s no backup for an operator who is out sick.
At a transit board meeting in March, riders asked the agency to restore service on the 80, a route that had been cut when Covid struck. Management’s response: we don’t have enough workers to run it.
Management promised a report about the hiring situation. But at least one AC Transit board member wanted to hear the perspective from the front lines.
Jovanka Beckles contacted Transit (ATU) Local 192 President Robert Coleman and invited the rank and file to a video town hall meeting. She wanted to hear their perspective on what is causing the transit worker shortage, as well as suggested solutions.
Mark Sherman, a 24-year veteran, expressed the surprise many workers felt that a board member wanted to hear from them directly: “This is the first time they reached out to us on this level.”
But Beckles is no ordinary transit board member. She’s a rank-and-file Teamster and was elected in 2020 with union backing. In fact, the ATU local recruited her to run.
TOWN HALL PRESSURE
On April 10, the Zoom screen was crowded with 80 transit workers ready to share their concerns and solutions with Beckles and two other board members she had brought in.
One of us, Sultana Adams, facilitated the meeting. Someone from management attempted to join uninvited, delaying the start; many workers would have been intimidated by their presence.
But once it was safe to begin, the floodgates opened. Workers poured out a litany of issues that have led them to consider quitting, led others to quit, and led to only half of new trainees taking the wheel.
Ron Baskin, a 10-year operator said that workers were “in the seat too long,” leading to absences caused by fatigue. Another operator argued that schedulers in the planning department “need to get out on the buses for a full shift with us drivers so they can see at every point why we’re late.”
“Management talks to us like we’re crazy when we try to come to them with the issues,” said another worker. “They don’t talk to you with respect.”
Jimanette James, a shop steward, pointed out how these problems impede hiring. “We bring in the potential employees, and they talk to us,” she said—and they won’t want to work at AC Transit “if we’re not being treated right.”
FULL OF SOLUTIONS
The workers had plenty of ideas for solutions. One longtime operator suggested that management “needs to be retrained to look at the drivers as a valuable asset and not as some lower working-class person under them.”
Another said childcare on the job would “make it easier, especially if we’re out here 13 to 15 hours a day,” due to long shifts and commutes. Another urged AC Transit to “help more, instead of being so quick to point to hard discipline” for minor issues.
Others said the agency should guarantee safe restrooms, eliminate micromanaging, and address health and safety issues, like on-the-bus assaults and lack of adequate bathrooms and breaks.
At the transit board’s meeting two days later, Beckles told the rest of the board that “there were some really good ideas that came out of that meeting with the membership.” The executive director of Human Resources asked for a briefing on what she had learned.
Beckles met with management three weeks later. “They were surprised by some of the feedback, because they weren’t aware of many of the issues experienced by workers,” she said. “Now there seems to be sort of a desperation to fix things.”
Soon after the briefing, management launched a worker survey and began holding workshops with service planning and executive staff—including the people who create the schedules that many workers find intolerable.
But Albert McKenzie, a 29-year veteran, was not impressed by the workshops. “What I’ve observed over the years is that nothing gets done after these meetings,” he said. “I participated, but I don’t feel like anything was accomplished.”
And Patrick Lavender, a 14-year operator who serves as a mentor to new hires, expressed his concern that management wasn’t really listening. Just a week after the workshops, three bus operator trainees were terminated in their final week of training.
“Them being let go just doesn’t sit right with me,” he said.
STOPPING THE NEXT CUTS
The next stage is a public petition demanding that the agency address the issues raised at the town hall. The petition can create “more awareness of the fact that transit workers and riders have the same interests,” said Dori Goldberg, co-chair of the People’s Transit Alliance, a project of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America.
The power of solidarity among transit workers and riders had become evident to us in 2021. When workers and Alliance members canvassed riders at bus stops, we found that many riders supported our demand for hazard pay—and were shocked that workers weren’t already getting it.
“The fight to win hazard pay taught us that solidarity was the way we were going to win a better transit system,” Goldberg said. “Improving working conditions for transit workers has a direct impact on the quality and level of service that transit riders receive.”
Now the workers are framing their concerns as common-good demands in which riders have an equally important stake. Goldberg said the Alliance took inspiration from Oakland teachers, whose recent strike forced the district to bargain over common-good demands, such as reparations funding for schools with many Black students.
Today many transit agencies are facing what is being called a “fiscal cliff,” as federal emergency Covid funds dry up. AC Transit has already launched a “service redesign” that many fear is a prelude to a new round of cuts. If there’s any hope of stopping that, it’s in worker-rider solidarity.
Sultana Adams is a bus operator at AC Transit, a member of ATU Local 192, and a co-chair of the People’s Transit Alliance. Richard Marcantonio is a managing attorney with Public Advocates Inc.