By Tom Fink
Ten years of work by the Valley Transportation Authority and ATU Local 265 recently culminated in a determination by the Department of Labor that Bus Driver is an occupation which requires skills worthy of formal apprenticeship. The transit agency and its front-line union achieved that goal by working together in a training partnership called Joint Workforce Investment (JWI) – established in response to a union initiative in 2005 – which satisfies the strategic goals of VTA and ATU, and meets the skill and career needs of workers:
- ATU seeks to link the union with the acquisition of the skills that provide family livelihood, to re-allocate union resources away from the adjudication of workplace discipline, and to firmly establish the credibility of unionized public employees.
- VTA needs a way to elevate and maintain high standards of public service, and to train replacements for a generation of retiring employees.
Bus drivers have the highest visibility of any transit workers, but despite the sensitivity of their position, they have historically been taught only the safe operation of large vehicles. They’ve been left to learn the customer service aspects of the job by themselves, sink-or-swim. Many successfully meet the daunting challenges of working with the public – often after many bitter years on the learning curve – while some do not. In the case of the latter, unrelieved stress eventually results in declining health, both mental and physical, and shabby treatment of the riding public impacts the reputation of the transit system, its union workers, and of public employees in general. It is a high-profile job, and whether it is done well or poorly, its impact is political.
To begin filling the training and support gap, JWI used the example of the building trades’ apprentice programs: the best people to train new-hires are fellow workers who have mastered the craft, a worker-to-worker principle that is especially important in an industry like mass transit where the working environment has a besieged, front line quality. That’s why we began a Bus Driver mentoring program in 2009. Every driver since that time has had the benefit of a master-driver mentor whose guidance was supplemented by classroom instruction. The insights gained through the mentor program provided the DOL with part of the framework it used in its apprenticeship determination.
The second guiding principle that public sector unions can learn from the building trades is that the most secure anchor for solidarity is the work itself. The enforcement of worker’s rights under the banner of an injury to one is an injury to all has been one of our movement’s most consuming activities. Well-intentioned, we used a mid-twentieth century point-of-production grievance template in a way that made many public sector unions seem little more than legal aid societies, and we defended work habits and behavior often unacceptable even to our own members. We have not been careful to discern what constitutes an injury, and it has undermined our credibility.
Our primary strategic challenge in this post-Reagan/Thatcher era is defense of what it has taken over a century of struggle to achieve: a social safety net and a robust public sector. The Right’s campaign to weaken the safety net, and to undermine and privatize the public sector cannot be countered by political struggle alone. Voters and taxpayers must be convinced, based on real experience, that publicly owned and operated enterprises are safe, reliable, and efficient, and that public employee unions add value in value-add ??in the delivery of vital services.
JWI’s achievement of an official apprenticeship program for bus drivers is a significant first step toward re-making our movement into one credible enough to attract allies and secure the loyalty of our members.
Tom Fink, VTA bus driver for 25 years and founder and director emeritus of JWI.