Transit workers are considered essential during the COVID-19 crisis, yet two union transit workers were fired in Milwaukee for exposing unsafe conditions for riders and operators. A video released on April 21 by James Macon, President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, shows an employee and elderly rider in close contact as she is wheeled onto the liftgate of a paratransit van owned by National Transit [also called Transit Express], a private company that is contracted by the Milwaukee County Transit System to transport passengers who are too ill or disabled to use regular buses. Neither the worker nor the rider are wearing masks or gloves, and social distancing for both is impossible.
The worker in the video, Tyrone McShan, had worked for National Express for 13 years before being fired on April 22 after he admitted that he had taken the video. “Even as COVID-19 became serious, we were having to buy our own supplies for cleaning our vans and for our own protection,” said McShan. “There was never a safety meeting with all the drivers, no safety plan was ever released to us and we received no guidance, via email or otherwise, for how to work under these conditions.” McShan underscored the fact that he and his union steward, who gave the video to Macon and was also fired, were trying to look out for the safety of their co-workers and riders.
“There is no safe distance for us when we are transporting these clients, and these are seriously ill people that are vulnerable, and I have been told that several of the people that I transported personally, have died of COVID-19,” McShan said. On April 22, National Transit manager Tracy Harrington phoned McShan, who had already been suspended after taking the video, to report to the headquarters for a meeting. Sensing that the company would fire him and then escort him out of the building in a public display intended to intimidate other workers from speaking out, he instead went to the union office. There, he was informed of his termination over the phone and was immediately able to file a grievance against the company for wrongful termination. “They are trying to use bully tactics and they have done so before in other situations. But this is a world pandemic situation and under these circumstances I feel strongly that this was a case of personal retaliation by Mrs. Harrington to make sure that the conditions we are working in are not exposed,” he said.
ATU Union Steward Taresa Cooper was also fired for her role in exposing the video. “We were trying to use the video to help the company get money for safety equipment from MCTS,” explained Cooper, who had worked for National Transit for seven years. “We are hands on with our clients, we have to be because they need so much assistance, and there was a real need for supplies,” she said. Cooper has lost three family members to COVID-19 since being fired on April 22 and is aware of the serious need for protective and sanitary equipment. “It is very hard to lose people like this, my mother, my grandmother and my great aunt. I just want to have my job back so I can support my family in these times,” she said. When asked why she thought the company reacted in the way it did, her answer mirrored that given by McShan. “They don’t want a union at their company,” Cooper stated. “By firing the union steward, they thought they could send a message to the other workers, to force them into compliance.”
Despite the illegal firings and lack of safety practices, companies like National Transit are not the root of the problem. National Transit along with National Express, which also provides paratransit services, depend on MCTS for guidance and funding. “MCTS receives $62 million to outsource to National Transit and National Express,” said Macon “But these companies are no longer receiving any support in order to take care of the most vulnerable people out there.” Unlike National Express, Macon maintains that First Transit is working hard to make sure its workers are safe, including its manager obtaining personal protective equipment with his personal funds.
For its part, MCTS, which has 60 routes, nearly 400 buses and more than 1,100 operators, has taken some steps to address problems related to operating a public transportation system during a deadly pandemic. After a severely delayed response, MCTS came out with a COVID-19 Response Plan to be implemented March 28, which called for ridership to be made free, riders to only be able to enter buses through the back door and PPE to be provided to operators. On April 8, MCTS began to limit the number of riders on each bus to 10, a necessary but once again delayed response to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
ATU Local 998 has played a crucial role in making sure that public transit is safe for operators, riders and maintenance personnel. “We had to push it with MCTS and the County Board,” said Macon. “It was a fight, even though they knew they had to do it.” The delayed reaction by MCTS and county authorities to COVID-19, as well as hostility toward the union that has worked so hard to keep workers and riders alike safe, is extremely disheartening, but the fact that some victories have been won shows the power of a militant union that is willing to go to great lengths to protect its members and the general public. “We have had some good support. I cannot complain. We have had a lot of support,” Macon stated when asked about if bus drivers had received support from the community and the larger Amalgamated Transit Union. Due to ATU 998’s militant response to the endemic foot dragging by MCTS, people have likely been spared from contracting potentially dying from COVID-19. As of the writing, onlyfour MCTS bus operators have been officially diagnosed with COVID 19, while seven others have been sent home with symptoms.
The problem in Milwaukee is twofold. First, MCTS is unwilling to honor its contracts in a time of pandemic by paying out the $62 million it receives from the federal government to the companies it subcontracts with to transport the most vulnerable people in our society. Second, when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly, it did not react quickly and had to be forced by ATU Local 998 to take action. Milwaukee is not the only place where this is happening. The elderly, chronically ill, disabled and immunocompromised all over this country still have to go to doctor’s appointments, the pharmacy or dialysis treatments.
Across the country, more than 100 transit workers are confirmed to have died from COVID-19, with many others in serious condition after contracting the virus. While there is no way to compile an accurate tally, at this point hundreds of public and private transit riders have been exposed to COVID-19 due to a serious lack of safety precautions. Public transit has never received the funding and support it deserves and it shows clearly that bus operators, workers that use public transit to get to their place of employment and the elderly and sick who rely on public transit options, are undervalued in a capitalist society such as exists here in the United States.
Bus operators and their union officials have been aware since February of the threat that COVID 19 poses to transit workers especially, due to the fact that they come into contact with hundreds of people every day. Several videos of transit workers pleading for better support and more safety gear have been noted in the media, but shrugged off by transit companies and public systems. The capitalists who control our public transit systems and private transit firms are betting against Americans following up on their outrage to make sure transit operators have a safe working environment. But transit workers, especially those that have been empowered by a labor union, will speak up, making sure that people know that they are one of the most affected populations during this pandemic and that they demand a safe working environment.
All progressive and revolutionary people should demand that transit workers be treated fairly, that they receive free sanitary supplies and PPE, hazard pay, increased sick leave and are able to transport people in compliance with the social distancing guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization. Limit riders to ten at a time on regular metro buses and one at a time on paratransit vans. The riders and operators deserve nothing less!