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Twin Cities bus drivers and anti-racist action

An interview with Adam Burch

Paul KD interviews Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 member Adam Burch about the union and the anti-racist action it took during the uprising in Minneapolis last summer.

Paul KD: Talk a bit about yourself and your job.

Adam Burch: I’m a bus driver for Metro Transit. I was hired in April 2018. The entire time I’ve been based out of the Haywood garage in downtown Minneapolis, right across from the Target Field stadium. There’s four other big bus garages across [the Twin] Cities, as well as the two main light rail facilities for the Green and Blue Line.

I’m a member of [Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005]. And I’m also a socialist and member of Socialist Alternative.

What’s cool about ATU 1005 is that our president Ryan Timlin is also a socialist and a member of Socialist Alternative. He was elected president in 2017. We just had local union elections in September and he was reelected for another term.

PKD: You made national news last year during the uprising when you refused to supply buses to the police department. Why did your union take this stand? How can unions like yours stand in solidarity with social movements?

AB: Last year around this time when the uprising developed after the murder of George Floyd, a call was made for Metro Transit drivers to take overtime to be a police bus. I knew Metro transit offers itself as almost like a deputized extension of the police departments.

We decided that it might be helpful if we raised demands [to] not be used like this by the police who just murdered George Floyd. We didn’t want to help them suppress protests that are demanding justice.

We thought it’d be better if that came from the grassroots, rank and file level of the union. It would make it easier for our leadership positions to rally around that, as opposed to seeing it come from the top down.

It started with me posting on social media, on Facebook: I’m not okay with this. I think these protests are justified. The police expect to use Metro Transit buses for this purpose, and I think it’s wrong. A way to show solidarity with this movement is to not be used by police. I’m a union member and I’m in a position to be able to do this with the protection of my union. Instead of just sending a message of solidarity, you can actually do something by withholding your labor and making an appeal for the labor movement, more broadly, to show this kind of solidarity.

The executive board put out a statement in support of this idea. Quickly thereafter ATU International made a similar statement and a strong case for why it is not acceptable for public transit to be used by police like this. And we were able to tie in what we’ve been able to do under COVID-19. Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.

In a similar vein, workers have a right to refuse unsafe work by saying no to a police department that wants to use them in this way. That was an effective argument. We put together a petition to pass around our own local, but also other unions in the Twin Cities and nationally.

When talking to my coworkers, a lot of their expressions were like, I don’t feel safe doing this. I don’t want it. The particularly heinous way that the police murdered George Floyd, why would I help out a police department that just did this?

I think all that was pretty effective, and then other transit workers not in ATU, but in [Transit Workers Union] Local 100 in New York City, one of their drivers at the point of pulling up to the protest [refused to transport arrested protesters]. This a very real sign of solidarity. A similar incident actually happened in Brooklyn Center after the police murder of Daunte Wright. One of our members pulled up there, not to be used to take the arrested protesters to jail, but just to be used as a police transport, but the, “if I don’t feel safe, I’m not going to do this work” thing still applied. And so that worker was able to refuse such work in that case too.

Not every union in the labor movement is asked to assist in police repression of protest. It’s provided us a clear way to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the calls for justice for victims of police brutality.

The labor movement needs to intervene in social movements and be a strong, progressive force outside of just the immediate battles between the boss and respective workers over a contract. If we show radicalizing youth around the Black Lives Matter movement that unions can play this role, it’ll strengthen the perception of unions.

Protesters outside the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct station on May 27, 2020. The building was taken by protesters and burned the next night. Photo credit: Chad Davis via Flickr.

PKD: A lot of unions are afraid to approach these fights. How have you gotten to the point where ATU 1005 can do this?

AB: It’s certainly not easy, and we’re not at the point where we want to be, but I think it does make a difference when people that want to see themselves as activists and want to move the labor movement closer to where they should be on broader social questions, it’s helpful just being a worker yourself, to go through the day-to-day experience of the rest of the membership. When you are also experiencing what it’s like to drive a bus during COVID-19, you have given yourself legitimacy to talk about these kinds of struggles with other members. A good union leadership will feel confident to make the kind of statements that they do if they feel they have at least a significant [part] of union membership that backs up this position.

It’s building patiently. These things can be formal, like the reform caucuses that we’ve seen throughout many labor unions. They try to change the character of their union to be more rank and file, militant.

Or you can establish a position like this and make it clear, like a petition. Then just go to each of your coworkers to talk about it and ask them if they support it, and if they do, sign here. That begins to solidify a layer of members that want to fight around this stuff and then you can show that to union leadership. Look, we’ve got this many members that have expressed support and we’re willing to take action around these things, so that means that you should be too.

I think it also protects us against attacks from outside, but even inside the labor movement, that this is just a top-down bureaucratic directive that doesn’t have any basis of support among the members. But when you actually have shop floor conversations with your coworkers, and you’ve gotten clear indication of support from regular people that are going through the day-to-day work like you are, it helps cut across some of those attacks that we are going to experience.

PKD: How has COVID-19 affected your job over the past year?

AB: It has a lot, ridership has gone down. That has affected a lot of aspects of what it means to work. We basically stopped. Well, not completely, but at one point they completely stopped express bus routes [that] pick up in the suburbs, come downtown in the morning and then pick up downtown to get back to the suburbs. Of course, that’s because a lot of offices closed downtown. A lot of office workers were able to work from home.

That greatly reduced the amount of work that could be had. What’s been good is that nobody has lost their job. A lot of workers and operators were able to take an extended COVID-19 leave—not like they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, it was like extended paid leave.

Since a lot of people were out of work during the peak of the pandemic, we were able to avoid a lot of cuts. But, on the bus, for a while, we wanted there to be rear-door entrance only so that passengers don’t have to walk through the front by the operator. We argued through the union pretty effectively and Metro Transit eventually agreed. We operated like that for a number of weeks.

It’s been a long-standing demand from the union that we want safety barriers installed—way before the pandemic, but now those safety barriers protect against the spread of COVID-19. So, a lot more buses were installed with the safety barriers.

Masks, you know, it’s been an ongoing thing. We don’t enforce the fare. From an operator perspective, it was kind of the same thing [with the masks]. We didn’t want to enforce masks, but Metro Transit provided disposable masks and we grab a handful on the way out the door to our bus. They are on the bus for passengers that don’t wear them or don’t have them. It eventually got to the point where there was good mask compliance among the riders.

ATU Local 1005 members gather outside contract talks with Metro Transit. Photo credit: Union Advocate

PKD: ATU 1005 recently rejected a last, best, and final offer from Metro Transit. How has the contract fight gone so far and what are your next steps?

AB: To clarify, technically the Metro Transit offer that we rejected was their best and final, not their last. It sounds stupid, but when they do that last, best, and final, that means they are saying that this is a red line—we’re done negotiating. Their latest proposal offer was not their last. It was just their best and final.

They’re indicating that they’re still open to negotiating. This is their second offer that they’ve given since the contract expired in August. The first one was a joke. This last one was voted down by the membership. I think it was like 72 percent to 28 percent. So 72 percent of us who voted, voted no. It was a strong no vote.

Their offer was a three-year [contract], the first year a 2 percent raise, next year a 2 percent raise, and the third year a 2.5 percent raise. This has been going on for a long time and, throughout this process, constant struggle with the company not taking negotiation seriously and meeting on an irregular and infrequent basis.

They tried to create this part-time position. Currently part-timers are guaranteed thirty hours. They wanted to create a part-time position, they call it a “flex part-time position.” This position would only get twenty hours without the benefits that even other part-time workers get. It was a provocative attack, trying to create another tier of workers.

In some areas they’re negotiating backwards. They’re not making progress, they’re trying to roll back a number of protections in the contract.

The last vote that we took in October on their first offer, that was a strike authorization vote. Not only did we vote down that first offer overwhelmingly, but we also gave our leadership authorization to call a strike if necessary. That was a huge vote too, it was over 90 percent.

I think a lot of people want to avoid a strike. The hope is that through continued negotiation we’ll get a good, acceptable contract offer.

But we’ve been taking a lot of actions throughout this process—pickets outside of where they’re negotiating. We’ve had a contract action team that has been organizing these actions. It’s been a good way for us to continue to mobilize members. Even though negotiation has gone very slowly, at an almost glacial pace, the fact that they did significantly improve their last offer from the one in October shows that some of these actions have had an effect.

PKD: There have been a lot of new unions forming recently in the Twin Cities: in the nonprofit world, in the service industry, Minnesota Public Radio, and the Walker Art Center. How can we connect the existing labor movement to the struggles of young workers, and the inverse, how do we bring younger workers into the existing labor movement?

AB: In [ATU] 1005, we have this education committee where members can volunteer, it’s responsible for the newsletter that comes out every two months. We try to highlight labor struggles that are either historical or current, whether it’s a teacher strike, Amazon strike, or even local like the Teamsters here that are locked out.

To use a concrete example, Metro Transit buys a lot of its petrol from this particular refinery. And so it gave an opportunity for the striking Teamsters to picket outside of Metro Transit. ATU of course acted in solidarity with that and raised their demand that while this lockout was going to be going on they should buy their petrol elsewhere. It’s kind of abstract to think that the labor movement is all in this together, broad slogans like an injury to one is an injury to all, but when you give these concrete examples, it is really true.

A strong labor movement is critical, because it sets a floor. ATU International has been helping us throughout this contract fight and they keep bringing up the fact that across the ATU contracts nationwide right now the proposal that Metro transit has given you, it’s one of the worst. We’re certainly not the biggest local, but we’re one of the bigger ones. If we accept this bad contract, that sets a floor for the rest of transit workers. Conversely, we’ve been able to benefit from the fact that locals in Colorado and Kansas—smaller transit agencies—are getting better contracts.

That wouldn’t be possible to even know unless you had a worker movement that was thinking beyond its own siloed fights. Even recently, another bargaining unit among the Teamsters 120 here got a pretty favorable, or more favorable than what Metro Transit is offering us, raise in their contract. That got spread around our own internal drivers forum page. It was like, “this section of workers got a good deal or got a better deal than we’re getting offered. We should demand something like that!”

When the labor movement starts thinking more like that, it can help drive the idea that a win for one particular labor local can easily be spread and build the confidence of workers more generally to demand something similar, but also a loss can have that same effect. It can set back what workers may think is possible. A lot of people restrict their focus to their own fight, but talking about the teacher struggles and the advances that they were able to win, especially also being a public sector workforce in more conservative Republican states, raises the confidence of all.

I think each regional labor federation has a responsibility to foster this attitude. This is the life of being in the labor movement. We all throw down for each other’s struggles.

It is with great sadness that we report that Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 Vice President Doni Jones died on July 4th. He was President of the Black Caucus and, before being elected Vice President, was the Executive Board operator’s representative at East Metro garage. He will be greatly missed by his union brothers and sisters and our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He fought tirelessly for ATU members and the labor movement. To carry on his legacy is to further advance and defend the gains of ATU and organized labor.

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Paul KD View All

Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.