Sometimes you pick your issues. Other times — and I’m coming to believe that this is by far the more common scenario — the issues pick you.
About a year ago news surfaced that drivers for the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) were on the verge of striking. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the VTA: how it was run, who was running it, and so on. I knew that public transit was a good thing. I didn’t own a motor vehicle till I was 37 — three years after I became a year-round Vineyard resident — because in my D.C. years I depended totally on public transport, my bicycle, and my feet.
But the Vineyard is not D.C., and thanks to the distances involved and the difference in population density, among other things, getting around in a small-town region isn’t like getting around in the big city. When I had to go off-island, I usually left my car at the Tisbury park and ride lot and rode the #10 bus to the ferry dock, but that was pretty much it.
The impending strike woke me up. Strikes are a last resort. They mean that communication has broken down in a big way. I started reading press reports more critically, and listening to drivers and riders. On Martha’s Vineyard you’re rarely more than two degrees of separation from anybody. This has its downside, but when you want to know more than what gets reported in the paper, it’s a big plus.
It did not take long to get the gist: The VTA was refusing to bargain with Local 1548 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), to which the drivers belonged. Except it was more complicated than that. Officially it was Transit Connection, Inc. (TCI) that was refusing to bargain with Local 1548. TCI is the Florida-based company hired by the VTA to manage daily operations, which include dealing with labor issues. The state requires regional transit authorities to outsource their daily operations: this was news to me. The ATU summarized the history and the issues in a VTA Strike FAQ.
WTF? I was learning just how much I didn’t know about the VTA. Others were having the same epiphany. The Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard, aka the MV Dems, of which I’m currently the secretary, devoted its July 2019 meeting to unions and collective bargaining. It featured labor lawyer Rick Gilberg, who’s a seasonal Chilmark resident, and included several of the striking VTA drivers.
In mid-July, state senator Julian Cyr and state representative Dylan Fernandes sent a letter to MV Democrats supporting the drivers and also describing their unsuccessful efforts to urge the VTA administrator to pressure TCI to return to the bargaining table. Dylan joined the picket line to listen to the drivers’ concerns.
Many of us supported the strike on the picket line, by posting signs, by offering lifts to regular riders who wouldn’t cross the picket line, by explaining the strike on social media, and so on.
And the strikers won their right to bargain, and, finally, a contract. On Martha’s Vineyard. In July. When year-round Vineyarders are preoccupied with working extra hours or extra jobs and surviving all the disruption that comes with having the population swell from under 20K to well over 100K for three frenetic, frantic, congested months.
The drivers knew that the struggle wasn’t over, and so did I. I couldn’t unlearn what I’d learned in the preceding months. Why had things gotten so bad, and what could be done about it?
I connected the dots laid out in the VTA Strike FAQ (see link above):
- In 2015, after years of trying to deal with ongoing problems, the drivers voted to join ATU Local 1548.
- TCI, the company hired by the VTA to handle daily operations, not only refused to recognize the union, they fought a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that they had to negotiate with Local 1548 all the way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — where they lost. In early 2019 a federal mediator was brought in, at the request of the drivers, to help facilitate negotiations. In June TCI walked away from the table, precipitating the strike.
- The VTA at any time could have directed TCI to negotiate. They didn’t. Instead they paid TCI’s legal bills.
- The VTA is funded with public (i.e., taxpayer) money, from the six island towns and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
- The VTA administrator is accountable to the VTA Advisory Board. The board consists of eight members. Each Vineyard selectboard appoints one. Of the other two, one advocates for the rider community and the other for the community of people with disabilities.
Whoa! Stop right there! I’m not sure I’d even heard of the VTA Advisory Board. This isn’t all that surprising. The Vineyard is a thicket of boards and commissions, each with multiple members. (Keep in mind that the Vineyard comprises six towns and one county, each with its own complement of boards and commissions.) They rarely make the news unless they screw up or get sued.
Here’s the kicker: When the strike started in June, the VTA Advisory Board hadn’t met since April. I mean, seriously: Despite the involvement of a federal mediator, not to mention that NLRB ruling that was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court, negotiations were breaking down, a strike was looming — and the board wasn’t even meeting?
Thanks in large part to public pressure, the board finally met in mid-July. The craziness of summer notwithstanding, the claustrophobic room was packed with drivers, regular riders, and community supporters.
Including me. I got my first look at the VTA Advisory Board. Suffice it to say that it was pretty damn clear that though the board might not be the source of the VTA’s problems, its inaction was a major contributor. Among other things, the Edgartown seat was vacant because its member had just resigned, and the two advocacy seats had been vacant for years. (I later learned that these were supposed to be filled by the town selectboards in rotation, but the towns weren’t sure whose turn it was to appoint what and if no applicants appeared when it was their turn the selectboards just let it drop.)
This issue had pretty clearly picked me, though I wasn’t clear what I had to offer. When service cuts were announced in early fall, I became part of the Coalition to Restore Vineyard Transportation. (As you might expect, off-season service is always more limited than summer service, but the cuts were announced with no prior consultation with drivers or riders.) I helped organize a well-attended “town hall” meeting in November, which came up with reasonable recommendations for improving both service and VTA transparency. I helped draft a letter to the editor about our recommendations and also presented them first to my town’s selectboard and then, in March, to the VTA Advisory Board.
The more I learned, the more I thought about the West Tisbury seat on the VTA Advisory Board. It was held by John Alley, a town icon and longtime public servant, who, like several others, had been on the board for 20+ years. I’ve lived here long enough to realize that none of them were going anywhere until they were good and ready. I’m not exactly a meeting person either, though I’ve been to more of them in the last four years than I had in the previous 30.
Then, shortly after COVID-19 shutdowns arrived on the Vineyard, John died unexpectedly. I was interested, but I’m no ambulance chaser, and town officials had a tall stack of more pressing matters to worry about, like stay-at-home orders and what was going to happen to the annual town meeting (ATM) and town elections? (Originally scheduled for April 16 and 18, respectively; the dates are now June 23 and 25, also respectively, and it looks as though the ATM is going to be held at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.) I checked the “open positions” listings on the town website a few times to see if the opening had been posted yet; it hadn’t, then I got distracted by other obligations.
Till I was on the town website looking for something else — and there it was, with a NEW banner attached to it. I emailed the town administrator to express my interest. She said the listing had actually been up a while and the selectboard was planning to appoint someone at their next meeting on Wednesday. Oops. She said she’d bring it up with the selectboard. I attended that week’s meeting — via Zoom, of course — to see what happened.
The appointment was deferred to the next meeting. I was invited to attend and speak. I did, not expecting much because the other applicant was well qualified and probably had an inside track because he’s held other appointed positions in town. But — after we’d both spoken, and after one selectman had wondered what they should do, flip a coin? the other guy withdrew his application.
So I’m now the West Tisbury member of the VTA Advisory Board. This past week I did the online tutorial on conflict-of-interest law that all municipal officials, elected or appointed, are required to take a test on. I even have a certificate to prove it. What next? Well, it looks like I’m on the bus, but it’s going to take a while to get up to speed. We shall see.