GVSU students participate in Rapid busing protests

GVL / Maddie Forshee 
The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Day of Action Jan. 27, 2016 at the Rapid Central Station in downtown Grand Rapids.

Maddie Forshee

GVL / Maddie Forshee The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Day of Action Jan. 27, 2016 at the Rapid Central Station in downtown Grand Rapids.

Maddie Forshee

On a rainy Jan. 27, Rapid buses operated as usual, taking students, residents and commuters alike all over Grand Rapids and the surrounding areas like any other day. What sets that bleak day apart from others, though, are the protests that occurred at Rapid Central Station.

“When those in power get into it, they abuse and abuse their workers,” said Lindsey Disler, president of Grand Valley State University’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a group that advocates for fair workers’ rights. “Now it’s time to stand up.”

That Wednesday was dubbed the “Day of Action” by protesters, a day-long series of four protesting actions against The Rapid. It marked a crucial point in the seemingly never-ending narrative of negotiations that The Rapid had found itself in with its union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), coming up with a day-long series of protests aimed to push negotiations to a head.

“It’s kind of a ‘this far, no further’ thing,” said Alex Kelley, USAS member. “We’re sick and tired of this. We’re making a stand here.”

USAS is a national student organization focused on advocating for and fighting for workers’ rights and is present on over 250 campuses in the U.S. and Canada. Disler began GVSU’s chapter of the group four years ago after having a class with now-retired sociology professor Michael Ott.

The students organize and protest any issue that they see needs attention and a little help from passionate supporters. The group’s involvement with ATU and The Rapid began in August of 2015, but ATU and The Rapid have been negotiating for over a year.

Last January, the contract between The Rapid and ATU expired, and upon entering a nine-month long bridge agreement set to end in August, the two groups began negotiating their new contracts.

The Rapid wanted to move its workers from its current pension plan to a 401(K) system. ATU had many qualms against the idea and refused it, bargaining to keep the current defined benefit pension plan. Currently, the two groups are trying to reach a compromise.

Thus began a back-and-forth negotiation process that exhausted The Rapid and ATU. USAS stepped in to try to help the process along quicker.

“It takes a lot of people, and luckily we have a lot of dedicated people,” Disler said.

During an open meeting on Aug. 26, The Rapid approved a decidedly large fare hike, increasing fares 16 percent and bringing fares for riders up to $1.75.

To ATU, and in turn USAS, this was a huge blow. Since the bridge agreement ended in August, ATU members have faced a few challenges. The Rapid, by law, no long covers health insurance increases, and they also no longer honor the grievance process if an employee is disciplined. The Rapid also no longer honors automatic due-deduction from paychecks, forcing the union to collect dues by hand.

Typically, the last two things are seen as tactics to weaken unions, and ATU took them very seriously.

In addition to financial instability, many workers expressed their serious concern to The Rapid about their pensions effecting their impending retirement.

“I’ve been in meetings where drivers say they can’t sleep or their appetite is gone,” said one Rapid bus driver who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s taking a mental toll on the drivers. How can you focus on the road safely, or your customers, or do anything the right way when you’ve got those problems on your shoulders?”

USAS decided that it was time to take action. By organizing marches and protests, the group intended to help the union by bringing attention to the issue and to put pressure on The Rapid to make a deal with ATU.

“We’re not going to stop,” Disler said. “We’re going to keep going, and it’s just going to escalate. We aren’t going to assault them, we aren’t going to hurt them physically, we aren’t going to hurt them mentally.”

The action started with a flash march. In November, USAS deliberately interrupted a Grand Rapids city meeting, effectively shutting down the meeting.

“It was a metaphor, because they’re killing their workers’ livelihood,” Disler said.

The “die in” was the first action that got real response from Rapid executive board members and city commissioners.

Former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who was out of town for the meeting, released a statement in response to the interrupted meeting.

“The brazen tactics that were used last evening are counterproductive,” he said in a ]video posted to the city of Grand Rapids’ Facebook page. “The actions last evening were selfish and disrespectful to fellow citizens.”

In December, USAS orchestrated protest caroling at the annual lighting of the Christmas tree in Rosa Parks Circle.

The Rapid and ATU still couldn’t come to a decision, with congeniality between the groups lessening by the day. Any meetings were held in separate rooms with a union mediator acting as a messenger between the two parties.

In light of this, USAS decided to organize the “Day of Action.” The day consisted of four protest actions, an unusual amount for one day. All day long, there was an active phone bank, where people could call different Rapid executives to ask for fair negotiation and an end to the drawn-out situation. Some calls wouldn’t even go through because the receiving end had been disconnected or would be sent straight to voicemail.

“We have student groups all across Michigan calling in today because they couldn’t be here,” Disler said. “Their phones have been down for most of the day. This is the most intense action that we’ve ever done.”

That morning, there was a banner drop over the executive parking lot at the Rapid Central Station; in the afternoon, a fare strike took place. Protesters with flyers entered buses, refused to pay and handed out flyers to riders about what was happening, prompting the drivers to call security. The tactic was meant as a signal to The Rapid for a desire for further negotiations.

That evening, there was sit-in of a Rapid executive board meeting. USAS, union workers and community members sat in for an hour and a half while the meeting paused and board members sat, otherwise unable to carry on with the usually closed meeting.

Eventually, police escorted the protesters out.

Since the “Day of Action,” The Rapid has remained stagnant, not negotiating with ATU. Both sides of the issue are eager to come to an agreement, but can’t agree on what the stipulations should be.

Disler and the union are optimistic that the negotiations will favor ATU and likely end in a few months.

“I think that the board is starting to sway in their opinion,” Disler said. “No one wants to be here, but we’re not going to stop. They will never have to deal with us again if they had a fair contract and treat their workers right.”