Augusta bus drivers voted Thursday to affiliate with the AFL-CIO’s Transport Workers Union of America, in a move not surprising to critics of the city’s troubled transit system.
Thirty-nine of the 53 eligible employees of McDonald Transit, the city’s bus manager, voted. Thirty voted in favor and nine voted against, according to a notice sent to commissioners from City Administrator Fred Russell.
As a result, the system’s maintenance staff and bus operators will be represented by Transport Workers Union of America and will have the power to strike, while managers and supervisors will not, according to the notice.
Transit General Manager Quentarus Brown, who came on when McDonald took over the transit contract last month, said he believed the workers’ decision was set in motion while prior operator Mobility Transit was in charge.
“Pretty much they decided to stay on that path,” Brown said. “We did everything by the book on our side to make sure they were accommodated. We just happened to be in the mix of it all.”
McDonald issued a letter stating the company preferred to represent workers’ interests and would work to help them improve conditions, to no avail, Brown said.
“It’s one of those things. I’m definitely going to work alongside of them,” he said. “This doesn’t at all show any type of delay in service. I don’t foresee a strike of any sort in the future. It’s time to sit down and negotiate and see what the terms and demands are.”
Wages have long been an issue among Augusta transit personnel. Brown said a newly-hired driver earns $10.69 while more experienced drivers make $14 to $15 an hour, “way above the market rate right now” among Georgia cities such as Albany, Columbus, Macon or Athens.
“The most important thing here is the people who are depending on us to pick them up,” Brown said.
Commissioner Donnie Smith, a state trooper who had the support of Augusta’s firefighters’ union prior to his election, said he was surprised at the move.
“I’d be curious what their intent is,” Smith said. “Georgia’s a right-to-work state.”
Commissioner Bill Lockett, a longtime critic of transit operations, said he was not surprised by the move.
“History will reflect, whenever you have an employer and the working conditions are not what they should be, employees tend to, if they have the opportunity to, go out and organize,” Lockett said. “Good companies don’t have a problem of unionization because their employees are satisfied with their treatment and their compensation.”
Lockett, a retired federal employee, believed the effort began under Mobility when driver trainees were paid meager per-diem wages, then saw their paychecks bounce at the bank.
“You would think that someone who works a full week should be able to support a family,” he said. “You would think that a person the employer decides to get rid of would have due process.”
Unions “can be a good thing if run properly,” Lockett said, while excessive demands can cause “the business to go under.”
Augusta Firefighters Association Vice President Charles Masters said he was not surprised, as an increasing number of essential city staffers tire of low wages.
“Something needs to be done,” he said.