Tuscaloosa , AL - On March 1, the University of Alabama Crimson Ride shuttle bus drivers began a strike in order to gain a living wage, benefits, job security and respect on the job. At 5:00 a.m., the drivers formed their picket line in front of the local First Transit headquarters and Crimson Ride bus yard. Students quickly mobilized to support the drivers, making signs and a massive banner reading, “Students support the strike!” They held signs reading, “Walk or bike, respect the strike!” and “Safety and dignity for drivers now!” Chanting, “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Right now!” the drivers and their supporters stood as the sun rose and waited for any possible strikebreakers.
The surprise strike came in response to a failed attempt at contract negotiations with First Transit, the corporation that the University of Alabama contracts with to provide the campus bus service. After months of attempting to negotiate a contract, First Transit came to the table due to increased pressure generated by the national support for the drivers. On Feb. 18, the negotiations ended with an insulting offer of a 17-cent raise for the drivers, with no mention of benefits or the ‘client prevails’ clause that allows drivers to be fired at any time.
Though the bus drivers were able to convince most of their coworkers to not cross the picket line, a few crossed it. Only a few buses made it to campus to drive their routes. Signs were posted at bus stops telling riders to expect delays and that certain routes would not be running. The strike was successful, as the usually busy roads around campus were empty. However, a couple of hours later, Dr. Witt, the University of Alabama President who previously refused to make a statement about the drivers’ situation, made it clear that he was on the side of First Transit. Calling on university employees to drive 15-passenger vans under threat of job termination, he compensated for the inactive buses by bringing in ‘scab vans.’
Back on campus, the students responded to Witt’s actions by splitting up into teams and distributing informational fliers about the strike. They encouraged other students not to ride the scab buses and vans; some students briefly boarded the buses and vans, asking the drivers who had crossed the picket line to support the strike, and passing out information to the passengers on board. Meanwhile, supporters organized by the Network to Fight for Economic Justice (NFEJ) called in from across the country, demanding Dr. Witt support the strike and the workers.
Several hours into the strike, union members received word that First Transit wanted to return to negotiations. Though they will return to work, their struggle is not over yet; their demands, including safer buses and a living wage, must be met or the strike may continue.
“I'm hoping they didn't just bring us back to the table for no reason,” said Tia Brown, union steward for the Crimson Ride drivers. “I pray that they brought us back to the table for something worthwhile that the members consider to be fair. Whether the negotiations go good or bad, the ultimate decision is in the members’ hands.”
Students are hopeful, but preparing for more struggle. “The strike was successful because so many people were willing to put themselves out there and take a stand for fair labor practices and dignity for the workers,” said Pia Garber, a member of the University of Alabama Students for a Democratic Society. “And the really amazing thing is that we’re all ready to continue the fight at a moment’s notice if we have to. We’re not going to stop until a fair contract is accepted by the union, and even then, we’ll always have an eye on First Transit.”