Transit workers: Settlement will strengthen Columbus

Braving 100-degree temperatures and condemnation from the corporate media, 660 Columbus bus drivers and maintenance workers, members of Transport Workers Union Local 208 accepted a new contract July 3, ending a two-day strike against the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

The largely African-American TWU workforce had been working since November without a contract, and no progress was made in negotiations until a federal mediator came in a month ago. However, members of TWU, concerned with safety and economic issues, had set a deadline of July 1 to settle or to walk. The union did not want to strike but felt they had to take a stand for economic justice and public safety or, as public workers, they would continue to be scapegoated for an economic crisis caused by corporate greed.

"Our members live in this community and whatever they earn, they spend in this community," said local union President Andrew Jordan. "We are active contributing members of the Columbus community and we're working to make this area better, stronger and safer."

The settlement brings workers a 7 percent raise over the next three years and continues pension coverage, although workers will contribute an additional 1 percent to that program. Healthcare coverage was maintained and strengthened in some areas, including a new wellness program rewarding workers for making healthy lifestyle choices (working out, quitting smoking, etc.). The contract included new security provisions for bus drivers, who must sometimes deal with violent passengers. Shorter shifts and other provisions address the dangerous fumes that maintenance workers must deal with.

The settlement is expected to bring over $2 million into the depressed Columbus economy as the transit workers spend their raises at local businesses.

"Everyone came together, workers and the public, and we are so happy to be back on the job," said driver Lisa Combs. "I want to retire and spend time with my family and now I can. We've given the better part of our lives to serving the public and we shouldn't have to retire just to get another job, like so many now have to. This is good for all of us."

Many of those present at the Transport Workers Union hall on South High were appreciative of the active role played by Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman in getting the sides to the table and working to get a quick settlement.

As in last year's fight against Senate Bill 5, which scapegoated public workers and would have ended their bargaining rights if it hadn't been repealed, the local media opposed the efforts of the workers. In a July 3 column in the Dispatch, entitled "Timing Makes it Hard to Identify With Strikers," Joe Blundo tried to pit the public against the strikers. The public, however, was generally supportive of the workers, according to Jordan.

"As soon as we set up picket lines, we started hearing car horns, seeing folks waving, giving us thumbs-up signs," Jordan stated. "We had people just showing up with water for the picketers, snacks, and encouragement. I was really happy to see a group from the AFL-CIO and especially a nice crowd from the UAW. It wasn't unanimous, there were a few negatives, but those being supportive were the majority, by far."

Mass transit has been under attack from corporate forces and GOP politicians nationally and the local had sent delegations to D.C. to lobby for a strong transportation bill.

Jordan said that mass transit as extremely important for local communities, helps people trying to find work and is better environmentally.

"I've been here 14 years and this really brought everyone, workers and public, together," said Trina Tucker. "This is important for my family and the settlement means that I can take care of them with dignity."

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