Wheels Drivers Strike Over Agency Fee

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(Host) A strike at a central Vermont public transportation company has entered its sixth week. The walk-out by drivers and mechanics isn’t about higher wages or benefits. The labor negotiations broke down over a fee that the union wants to collect from workers.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, both sides seem dug in for the long haul.

(Sound of birds chirping, cars driving by.)

(Dillon) At dawn, almost every workday for the past five weeks, John Willard has kept a vigil on a roadside in Berlin. He walks a picket line outside the headquarters of Central Vermont Wheels, the public transportation company that serves 23 towns around the Barre-Montpelier area.

Willard drove vans and buses for Wheels for about two and a half years. On May 13, along with fourteen other drivers and mechanics, he walked off the job. The Teamsters union local struck after Wheels management refused to collect a mandatory fee from workers. It’s called an agency fee. The cost is less than regular union dues and it pays the expense of contract negotiations and other work the union does for employees.

Workers at Wheels aren’t required to join the union. But Willard says if the employees enjoy the benefits of a union contract, it’s only fair that they cover their share of the costs:

(Willard) “They get the same raises and benefits and everything that we get. Even if they are disciplined or anything, our union rep or shop steward has to go in and make sure they get a fair shake out of the problem…. So we just feel… we’re tired of footing the bill and we need to have to have them pay.”

(Dillon) Central Vermont Wheels serves almost two dozen towns. Some routes were affected by the strike. But the transit agency says it’s been able to restore service to most areas. The union is also driving passengers. At the Central Vermont Medical Center, striker Ken Kirsten picks up people to ferry them down the hill to Barre.

(Kirsten) “I’m driving the Teamsters van right now to let the public know we’re out there and supporting transportation.”

(Dillon) Kirsten and other drivers argue that Central Vermont Wheels wants to weaken or break their union by denying the agency fee. Fees like this aren’t unusual in labor contracts. State employees, for example, have to pay an agency fee to their union.

But Wheels Executive Director Donna Bate says she doesn’t believe employees should be forced to pay. She says that Wheels offered to include part-time workers in the bargaining unit, which she says would have expanded union membership.

(Bate) “This is not an anti-union stance. This is a stance about freedom of personal choice. And if their track record is good, people will want to support them. They’ll not only want to pay an agency fee, they’ll want to pay dues and participate.”

(Dillon) Both the union and Wheels management say the agency fee is a matter of principle that’s not open for discussion.

There’s not much progress in the negotiations. The talks broke down last Friday after a seven-hour session. But both sides say they’re willing to try again with the help of a federal mediator.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Berlin.

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