Grand Valley transit union workers protest for safer working conditions, healthcare

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – Union leaders of the local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 1776 led a protest this morning on the corner of North Avenue and 12th Street in Grand Junction to protest what they claim is the misdirection of federal funds to offset the effects of the pandemic on transit operations towards non-pandemic related operational costs. Union members, stewards, sympathetic members of the public, and members of the local civil rights group Right & Wrong (RAW) were also at the protest.

Judi DeRusha, president of ATU 1776, has been a bus operator with Grand Valley Transit for over six years. At the protest she held up a sign on which Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis’ name prominently written.

“McInnis is one of the voting members of the [Grand Valley Regional Transportation Committee], which is the governing board over Grand Valley Transit,” DeRusha said. “GVRTC controls the purse strings. They’re the ones that pay my employer [Transdev]. My employer is contracted out to them. They also are the ones that received the CARES Act funding and are in control of those funds.”

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by the US Congress and signed by Donald Trump in late March, $25 billion in funding was apportioned for “Transit Infrastructure Grants”, specifically for operations, capital, and administrative costs incurred by local, state, and federal transit agencies as a result of the pandemic.

The Grand Valley Regional Transportation Committee (GVRTC) received $5.4 million from the CARES Act transit funds. DeRusha said that bus operators and staff did receive additional personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and “shower curtains” that serve as barriers between drivers and passengers. However, the union is asking for additional safety and health measures.

“I don’t believe they’re adequate,” DeRusha said of the current sanitizing supplies, “and that we should have something more permanent. There are safety barriers available that are retrofitted to the buses that can be purchased, and I think it’d be a good idea for [GVRTC] to use part of that funding to do that. I’d also like to see them put UV filtration systems in our buses that clean the filters, and it would kill bacteria and viruses.”

DeRusha added that the safety barriers would also serve an additional purpose: to “protect us from physical assault that’s become very rampant across the world on bus drivers.”

The union is also asking for hazard pay and “pandemic leave”, which would allow transit operators to take time off for their own healthcare needs or care for loved ones without having to worry about possibly transmitting the Covid-19 virus to them or to coworkers.

“The company that employs us, Transdev, they did request an amendment to their contract [to GVRTC] that would allow them to pay us pandemic leave and hazard pay, and these voting memberss of GVRTC rejected that proposal out of hand with no explanations offered.”

She said that rather than using CARES Act funds to implement those measures, GVRTC is instead setting aside those funds for non-Covid operations, such as bus shelters and a maintenance facility. She referred to the recent meeting minutes of the GVRTC, during which committee members discussed operations expenses to improve shelters and facilities as well as the fleet.

“They were wanting to paint our bus shelters and put solar lighting in them and possibly do some updated versions of bus shelters.”

Julio Chavez, 12, showed his support for ATU 1776 and their demands for safer working conditions.

Bill Campbell, an ATU 1776 union steward and bus operator who joined the transit authority in November, said that there have been transit staff who have had to take time off to get tested for Covid.

“You look around and see a lot of grey and white hair here that are in the age group that’s kind of high risk, right, and then some have underlying conditions. So we’re in a 32-foot to 42-foot petri dish, you know, with all kinds of people.”

Campbell said that DeRusha has been “trying to irritate [the GVRTC] into some kind of action since this direct questioning doesn’t seem to be working. So we’re trying to get some public support, since they’re not answering to us, maybe they’ll answer to the taxpayers.”

The protest, which began at 10:00 and was scheduled to end at 2:00 pm, drew supportive car honks from passing motorists. Protestors stood on all four corners of the intersection, waving signs and calling out to drivers for their support. One driver in a sleek, white Porsche slowed down while driving westbound on North Avenue and asked DeRusha what ATU was and why they were protesting.

“You know, I got out of the Army in 1995,” Campbell said. “At that time, I’d raised my hand to say, yeah, I’ll die for the job because, you know, that’s what I agreed to. This one, at $13.39 an hour? I don’t want to die for that.”

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