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Transit Workers Demand ‘Fix Our Schedules,’ Packing Board Meeting

Above photo: Inside the AC Transit board room, Bay Area union members and supporters demanded schedules that allow breaks for bus operators. E. Wheeler.

“Fix our schedules.” That’s the demand that filled the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit board room in Oakland, California, beyond capacity on June 5.

Bus operators are “not able to have a break,” Transit (ATU) Local 192 President LaTrina Meredith said, opening two hours of public comment. “They’re trying to make a schedule that is unsafe. They won’t drink water because they don’t have time to use the restroom.”

Dozens of drivers spoke. For busy bus lines, despite the 15-minute layover on paper, in reality “we get there maybe six or seven minutes after,” said Linda Muhammad, who has 20 years of experience. “And then we have to secure the bus, answer questions, run to the bathroom, come back, load up, and when we load up, we’re usually pulling out late.”

Lisa Honeycutt Adams drives a shift that begins in the early afternoon. “I don’t drink my water until eight o’clock recovery time,” she said, “in hopes that I won’t use the restroom until I get off from work” after 10 p.m.

Because of the demanding schedule, she has told her family not to contact her unless there is an emergency. “My youngest son listened for once in his life,” she said, “and sat at home for four hours with two fractured fingers waiting for me to get off from work.”

A separate accident sent her son to the E.R.—and she didn’t find out until “I listened to my voicemail as I was running to the restroom with three minutes left in my recovery time.”

These inhumane schedules are fueling a retention and hiring crisis. Bus operators burn out, succumb to long-term injury, or leave for less-demanding jobs. “It’s like your scheduling department is trying to make sure that you guys don’t keep operators here,” Meredith said.

Riders suffer too. The agency operates with chronic short-staffing, and scheduled service is unreliable, often canceled due to absences.

Solving The Wrong Problem

Like transit agencies across the country, AC Transit lost ridership and cut service with the onset of the Covid pandemic. It currently runs just 85 percent of pre-pandemic service levels.

When riders ask the board to restore routes, they’ve been told the obstacle is a shortage of trained bus operators.

Yet when AC Transit launched a service realignment process in early 2023, getting to the root of the operator shortage was not part of the plan. Staffing issues would only be “analyzed” in order to “right-size our operations”—a code word for cuts.

This is especially galling since workers met with three board members over a year ago to air their concerns and offer solutions. Board member Jovanka Beckles shared those concerns and solutions with management shortly afterwards.

Any real fixes will require hiring more drivers and keeping current drivers by reducing the stress of the schedule—a stress akin to the overly stringent production quotas that California law now prohibits for warehouse workers.

The Union Organizes

With worker frustration at a boiling point, the union decided to make a stand at the special board meeting the agency had called as part of its “Realign” initiative.

The stated goal of Realign was to adjust bus routes and frequencies, supposedly to meet post-Covid changes in travel needs. It was supposed to be an “inclusive” process, but it wasn’t inclusive of worker concerns.

Rather than ask the operators what problems needed to be solved, planners engaged in a black-box exercise that led to wholesale changes in routes and service. In November, planners brought a mystifying array of new service maps for cursory comment by union bus operators, while failing to work with union leadership to identify problems and solutions.

Staff “lied about coming to the divisions and talking to us,” said new bus operator Phyllis Jackson. They just “sat there and looked at us as we passed through.”

At the December board meeting, AC Transit planning staff had promised to add time to the schedules of 57 routes, including adding buses on 15 of them, leaving workers optimistic that a solution was at hand. But progress was painfully slow, and at the board meeting in March, just eight routes would be affected.

At that same meeting, the public and the board emphatically rejected the proposed changes, which would have reduced the frequency of service on key routes serving low-income communities of color. The board sent staff back to the drawing board, directed it to meet with the union, and scheduled the June 5 special meeting.

‘Left Out Of The Equation’

On June 5, dozens of ATU members arrived early; soon it was standing room only. Many more joined by Zoom. The tension in the room was palpable as staff presented its draft proposal—and then came the public comment period.

“You heard the groans, the murmurs, the words under the breath,” Local 192 officer James Jackson told the board. Members “are dissatisfied with the fact that they’re being left out of this whole equation.”

The Realign proposal was made with computerized data. Rather than listen to “your algorithm,” said Edward Real, vice president of ATU Local 1555, “you have your people… They’re on the bus every day. Listen to them.”

“The experts that are managing our logistics, realignments and schedules have failed,” said Lionel Jones, a new bus operator, “because you refuse to work jointly with the people who are the meat and potatoes of this system.”

Rider Solidarity

About half of the 56 speakers were members of the ATU locals. Others were riders.

Health care worker Lois Merritt teared up as she said, “Thank you for carrying me to my job during the pandemic—because if it wasn’t for you, and I’m starting to get emotional, but if it wasn’t for you, I couldn’t help my patients.”

Warren Cushman, representing Community Resources for Independent Living, a disability organization, called the proposal “destructive” and said “it pits drivers and passengers against each other.” Others talked about the tension that late buses can cause between riders and the drivers whom they incorrectly blame for the problem.

The People’s Transit Alliance presented a solidarity petition with 450 signatures. And Keith Brown, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, warned the board that “labor will be monitoring these changes closely with AC Transit board elections approaching in November.”

Small Wave To Tidal Wave

By the close of public comment, General Manager Michael Hursh was pledging to “triple our efforts” to make sure every worker had reasonable breaks and bathroom access, and promising to meet with union leaders. (Two weeks later, he did.)

Of course it will take continued organizing to make sure management follows through on fixing schedules. Jack Watkins, a bus operator and assistant shop steward, said he wants to “use this meeting’s energy to encourage and remind drivers what solidarity in action looks like.”

But union leaders and members left the public meeting feeling elated at their collective power.

Everyone’s powerful testimonies “built up a small wave,” said operator-in-training Troy Blake. “Now we have to ride it out into a tidal wave.”

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