Growing and strengthening west Michigan's middle class
GRAND RAPIDS September 2, 2015– RiChard Jackson, president of ATU Local 836, said negotiations with The Rapid remain stalled, despite a special mediating session on Monday.
Last week, the Rapid’s board met and heard from bus drivers and their family members, community supporters, and people who rely on the Rapid to get them around town. They all urged the board to extend the union’s contract 30 or 60 days so negotiations could continue and an agreement could be reached. But the board instead voted to extend the contract only 48 hours, while giving Rapid CEO Peter Varga a pay increase and hiking fares almost 17 percent.
The local’s contract expired Monday night after a final day of unsuccessful negotiations, but Jackson says the fight’s not over. But as they prepare for the next step, buses will continue to run.
“The buses will roll tomorrow…..but the future for us is uncertain,” says RiChard Jackson the Union President.
Pensions are the major road block in these negotiations. The Rapid wants to freeze the current pension plan and put something similar to a 401k in its place. The drivers have a problem with that.
“We’ve been told by management there is a 70 year old employee who is going to retire in January and if they freeze or terminate this plan, they’re only required to pay her 75 percent of what her accrued value is,” says Jackson.
Larry Hanley, ATU international president, wrote a guest column for the Daily Kos this week, bringing Local 836’s current contract fight to the national stage. In his column, he says the region’s billionaire class who fund local politicians often push policies that not only ignore poverty, but actually makes it worse. His column ties the Rapid’s recent fare hikes and management’s desire to cut pensions to a broader attack on the region’s working class and poor.
From Hanley’s column:
Go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the tourism bureau’s sales pitch is unavoidable. Sweeping videos advertise “A City of Art,” “A City of Design,” “Top 10 City for R&D Investment,” “Best Place to Invest,” a “Learning Lab” for transit, and my favorite, “Beer City USA.”
There is good reason that Grand Rapids tags itself with such lofty monikers. While the rest of Michigan, especially Detroit, has been obliterated to make room for austerity, Grand Rapids was made a petri dish for it instead. When American manufacturing was dismantled, setting the stage for the long decline that continues today, western Michigan billionaire families with names like Van Andel, DeVos, and Meijer teamed up with their accomplices in elected office to repackage the city.
Once they finished this taxpayer-funded and billionaire-supplemented paint job in Grand Rapids, they shooed away the homeless to shelters and storefront nooks on Division Street. Then, they lured in the conferences and investors, the craft breweries and big tickets concerts with a clear message: “Look at this pristine, Truman Show utopia we’re creating!”
[N]early 27% of Grand Rapids residents live below the poverty line. Many of these are the front-line service workers who live in fear of losing a job if they don’t smile widely enough for the out-of-touch, big-salaried customers who play downtown and then flee to the suburbs at night.
Yet the political class in town has decided to make the city’s poorest bear the heaviest burden. When panhandling reached a crisis level, they did not invest in education, healthcare, or employment programs. Instead, they criminalized begging altogether. It took a 2013 ACLU lawsuit to finally overturn the law. Asking for help from strangers when you’re at your most vulnerable is not a crime; it’s an act of desperation and a protected First Amendment activity.
But the courts couldn’t stop the most recent attack on the poor: an unprecedented 16.1% fare increase for bus riders supported by the Board of Directors at The Rapid, the city’s transit agency. While it is blasphemy to tax the rich in Grand Rapids, it is apparently fine to tax the transit-dependent.
The Rapid’s CEO, Peter Varga, told a Michigan Public Radio reporter this: “The whole purpose was to get people to buy multi ride tickets to make it easier for them to board.”
I became a bus driver in 1978. I want easier boarding, too. But the reason people buy single-ride tickets is not because they’re stupid. It is because they do not have the cash liquidity to purchase multiple rides at once. They are afraid of spending too much on one need for fear they won’t have enough for another tomorrow.
Moving up the economic ladder, the few middle class jobs that remain are also under attack. The 300 bus operators and mechanics who operate The Rapid are the target du jour. They represent a cross-section of Grand Rapids: black and white, immigrant and Native American, young and old, high school and college graduates alike. Their job isn’t easy. Because the city won’t address the root problems of poverty and city leaders hide out from those who suffer most, the public’s rage is taken out in the form of assaults on bus drivers. Shots have even been fired through bus windows. How does The Rapid, on whose Board sits the current Mayor and Mayor-elect, respond? By terminating the long-established pensions of these devoted civil servants.
That brings us to the top of the economic ladder here in Gerald R. Ford territory, where anti-tax and anti-government sentiments have long ruled. Ideologues at places like the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy don’t think we should invest in a safety net for the quarter of our neighbors who fell between the cracks or that we should maintain pensions so retirees aren’t forced onto government programs later. Instead, they advocate eliminating the safety net for the poor and demanding that middle class families sacrifice even more.