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Thursday, May 26, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesVITRAN WORKERS SAY 'FIRE DPW MANAGERS, NOT US'

VITRAN WORKERS SAY 'FIRE DPW MANAGERS, NOT US'

Public transit workers under the sword of impending layoffs of more than half their number say they will march on the Legislature next week in a last-ditch effort to save their jobs — and the territory's transit system.
Meantime, Vitran St. John operations manager Donna Roberts and United Steelworkers Union president Luis "Tito" Morales say they will lobby senators, and Morales says he will contact Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to press worker protests and present an alternative to the layoffs announced by the Public Works Department.
According to Roberts, workers in both districts have agreed to prepare a counterproposal to the layoffs in which they will offer to give up holiday, overtime and sick pay until the end of this year in exchange for a government pledge to keep the Vitran system intact.
United Steelworkers officials broke the news of the impending terminations to about 35 Vitran bus drivers, mechanics and utility workers at a noon meeting Thursday at the Vitran terminal in Contant that interrupted bus service on St. Thomas and St. John for several hours. Morales told them bus operations in both districts would be cut in half by mid-May.
The decision to lay off 62 of the 130 Vitran employees — 33 in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 29 on St. Croix — had been delivered to union officials at a Tuesday meeting with Public Works Commissioner Harold Thompson Jr., his transportation director, Verne Callwood Jr., and Government House chief labor negotiator Karen Andrews.
Among the 29 workers and four management employees on St. Thomas and St. John who received layoff notices Thursday was Thomas White, a mechanic supervisor who began work with the bus service in 1967 when it was the Manassah Bus Co. "They give me a letter saying as of next month, the 17th, I'm laid off," he said.
Morales told the union members he blames Public Works officials for a series of bad management decisions that left Vitran $12.5 million dollars in the red, and that it is they who should be fired. The most recent of their missteps, he said, was the decision to cut service 50 percent territorywide. The reason for the deficit, he said, is that when Vitran expanded to include St. Croix and St. John operations, no additional government funding was allocated. Public Works officials knew this, but never sought a supplemental appropriation, he said.
Morales also charged that government officials failed to supply documentation that would have enabled the territory to draw federal transportation funds that most public systems in the United States depend on for their operations.
Since Public Works took over the operations from Manassah in 1995, ridership in the St. Thomas-St. John district has risen to 7,500 a day from 6,500, Morales said, and 80 percent of the public transit ridership territorywide is on St. Thomas and St. John. "Based on these figures, we continue saying it is unjustifiable that the government wants to cut the operations 50 percent in both districts," he said.
Some of the workers now subject to layoff contend that Public Works is abusing the system by siphoning off transit funds for other purposes. And Morales said transportation funds were used to pay garbage haulers when they staged a recent work stoppage. After the meeting, bus driver George Wright charged that sanitation workers were taking bus-fare revenues to buy fuel for their trucks. "The garbage trucks –we provide the money to put fuel in these trucks! So, if you misappropriate the funds, how are you going to send me home and tell me we are running in the red $12 million?" he said.
News of the layoffs hit many in the bus service hard. The official statement delivered by Morales and union organizer Randolph Allen was greeted with angry shouts and accusations of betrayal. At one point, two drivers began to grapple with each other as some in the group called for quiet to allow union officials to continue their address.
The news was especially bad for the Vitran workers on St. John, where public transportation was only introduced in 1997. Layoff notices went out to every St. John transit worker except for one, operations manager Roberts.
Coming strongly to the defense of her co-workers, Roberts said her drivers and mechanics have worked hard to make the new service a success, toiling under bare-bones conditions for less pay than their St. Thomas counterparts. "We on St. John make $3,000 to $6,000 less than St. Thomas employees," she said. "We were told we would be brought up to level with St. Thomas but never were. We were [among] the lowest-paid employees in order for the government to save money."
Some of the St. Thomas workers said they felt let down by a union that had failed to deliver on a promise of job security. "The Vitran workers have never been established as permanent government employees," Wright said. When the system was brought under Public Works in 1995, he said, employees were given temporary worker status. The Schneider administration brought in the Laidlaw Bus Co. in an attempt to re-privatize the system, but the company withdrew when the government failed to agree to its demand for $1 million a year to run the transit system.
"In 1997, the union said if the government does not find a private company in two years, then Vitran workers were supposed to become permanent government employees," Wright said, but it never happened.
Allen told the St. John workers that since they were last to join the union, they were at the bottom of the seniority list, and thus the first to be laid off. In order to ease the impact of layoffs on more senior employees, he said, by definition St. Thomas workers would be given the opportunity to transfer to jobs on St. John, where the number of buses in operation is to be trimmed from four to two.
When St. John's Vitran service was being set up, drivers from St. Thomas and St. Croix were at the wheels of the buses. They were housed at the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic on a rotating basis so that they would be on hand to start the first run of the day at 5:15 a.m.. Now, however, the union officials said, any St. Thomas driver who wants to work on St. John will have to take up residence on St. John.
As union officials prepared to leave the meeting at the bus terminal, the rank and file members convened to hold their own meeting in a parked bus. There Roberts urged them, as Morales had earlier, to stay on the job and continue to provide service for the ridership.
After the meeting, Roberts said that two St. Thomas drivers facing layoffs unless they opt for the move have pledged solidarity with their St. John colleagues. "They say, no way in hell we going to St. John," Roberts said.
White said what Public Works is proposing is unworkable. "The buses are going to go further down," he said. "It takes all here to continue to keep the operation going." He also charged that some Public Works officials were deliberately trying to sabotage public transit because they have relatives operating vehicles called "dollar taxis" which pick up passengers along the public bus routes for the same fare charged by Vitran.

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Public transit workers under the sword of impending layoffs of more than half their number say they will march on the Legislature next week in a last-ditch effort to save their jobs -- and the territory's transit system.
Meantime, Vitran St. John operations manager Donna Roberts and United Steelworkers Union president Luis "Tito" Morales say they will lobby senators, and Morales says he will contact Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to press worker protests and present an alternative to the layoffs announced by the Public Works Department.
According to Roberts, workers in both districts have agreed to prepare a counterproposal to the layoffs in which they will offer to give up holiday, overtime and sick pay until the end of this year in exchange for a government pledge to keep the Vitran system intact.
United Steelworkers officials broke the news of the impending terminations to about 35 Vitran bus drivers, mechanics and utility workers at a noon meeting Thursday at the Vitran terminal in Contant that interrupted bus service on St. Thomas and St. John for several hours. Morales told them bus operations in both districts would be cut in half by mid-May.
The decision to lay off 62 of the 130 Vitran employees -- 33 in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 29 on St. Croix -- had been delivered to union officials at a Tuesday meeting with Public Works Commissioner Harold Thompson Jr., his transportation director, Verne Callwood Jr., and Government House chief labor negotiator Karen Andrews.
Among the 29 workers and four management employees on St. Thomas and St. John who received layoff notices Thursday was Thomas White, a mechanic supervisor who began work with the bus service in 1967 when it was the Manassah Bus Co. "They give me a letter saying as of next month, the 17th, I'm laid off," he said.
Morales told the union members he blames Public Works officials for a series of bad management decisions that left Vitran $12.5 million dollars in the red, and that it is they who should be fired. The most recent of their missteps, he said, was the decision to cut service 50 percent territorywide. The reason for the deficit, he said, is that when Vitran expanded to include St. Croix and St. John operations, no additional government funding was allocated. Public Works officials knew this, but never sought a supplemental appropriation, he said.
Morales also charged that government officials failed to supply documentation that would have enabled the territory to draw federal transportation funds that most public systems in the United States depend on for their operations.
Since Public Works took over the operations from Manassah in 1995, ridership in the St. Thomas-St. John district has risen to 7,500 a day from 6,500, Morales said, and 80 percent of the public transit ridership territorywide is on St. Thomas and St. John. "Based on these figures, we continue saying it is unjustifiable that the government wants to cut the operations 50 percent in both districts," he said.
Some of the workers now subject to layoff contend that Public Works is abusing the system by siphoning off transit funds for other purposes. And Morales said transportation funds were used to pay garbage haulers when they staged a recent work stoppage. After the meeting, bus driver George Wright charged that sanitation workers were taking bus-fare revenues to buy fuel for their trucks. "The garbage trucks --we provide the money to put fuel in these trucks! So, if you misappropriate the funds, how are you going to send me home and tell me we are running in the red $12 million?" he said.
News of the layoffs hit many in the bus service hard. The official statement delivered by Morales and union organizer Randolph Allen was greeted with angry shouts and accusations of betrayal. At one point, two drivers began to grapple with each other as some in the group called for quiet to allow union officials to continue their address.
The news was especially bad for the Vitran workers on St. John, where public transportation was only introduced in 1997. Layoff notices went out to every St. John transit worker except for one, operations manager Roberts.
Coming strongly to the defense of her co-workers, Roberts said her drivers and mechanics have worked hard to make the new service a success, toiling under bare-bones conditions for less pay than their St. Thomas counterparts. "We on St. John make $3,000 to $6,000 less than St. Thomas employees," she said. "We were told we would be brought up to level with St. Thomas but never were. We were [among] the lowest-paid employees in order for the government to save money."
Some of the St. Thomas workers said they felt let down by a union that had failed to deliver on a promise of job security. "The Vitran workers have never been established as permanent government employees," Wright said. When the system was brought under Public Works in 1995, he said, employees were given temporary worker status. The Schneider administration brought in the Laidlaw Bus Co. in an attempt to re-privatize the system, but the company withdrew when the government failed to agree to its demand for $1 million a year to run the transit system.
"In 1997, the union said if the government does not find a private company in two years, then Vitran workers were supposed to become permanent government employees," Wright said, but it never happened.
Allen told the St. John workers that since they were last to join the union, they were at the bottom of the seniority list, and thus the first to be laid off. In order to ease the impact of layoffs on more senior employees, he said, by definition St. Thomas workers would be given the opportunity to transfer to jobs on St. John, where the number of buses in operation is to be trimmed from four to two.
When St. John's Vitran service was being set up, drivers from St. Thomas and St. Croix were at the wheels of the buses. They were housed at the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic on a rotating basis so that they would be on hand to start the first run of the day at 5:15 a.m.. Now, however, the union officials said, any St. Thomas driver who wants to work on St. John will have to take up residence on St. John.
As union officials prepared to leave the meeting at the bus terminal, the rank and file members convened to hold their own meeting in a parked bus. There Roberts urged them, as Morales had earlier, to stay on the job and continue to provide service for the ridership.
After the meeting, Roberts said that two St. Thomas drivers facing layoffs unless they opt for the move have pledged solidarity with their St. John colleagues. "They say, no way in hell we going to St. John," Roberts said.
White said what Public Works is proposing is unworkable. "The buses are going to go further down," he said. "It takes all here to continue to keep the operation going." He also charged that some Public Works officials were deliberately trying to sabotage public transit because they have relatives operating vehicles called "dollar taxis" which pick up passengers along the public bus routes for the same fare charged by Vitran.