On July 8, Visalia’s fixed bus routes, Dial-A-Ride, Sequoia Shuttle and V-LINE were all suspended as drivers went on strike.
It was startling to see the transit center so desolate. Throw in a rolling tumbleweed with the heat, and the scene would resemble a ghost town. No buses. No people. No movement. Nothing but a hot sun reflected and enhanced by a desert of cement.
The only movement for most of July was when members of the Teamsters Local 517 union and their supporters picketed. They gathered in the mornings for several days, enduring the Central Valley summer to make their message clear: “We are not backing down.”
There is always something inspiring about a union taking on large organizations. Perhaps because it’s one of the last ways the working class can create change in this country. Union strikes are reminders that we do have power, as long as we can work together.
Visalia is a medium-sized city with a population of almost 143,000, but Visalia Transit has routes to and from nearby cities such as Tulare, Farmersville and Exeter. In addition to its regular bus lines, Visalia Transit offers shuttles to Fresno, via the V-LINE that is commonly used by Fresno State students, and Sequoia National Park. All these lines are run through the national company Transdev.
During the strike, Greg Landers, Teamsters Local 517 secretary, explained the situation, “We spent two months on no economics in the contract, which is anything but money. So the first day we got into economics they broke up negotiations and said, ‘All we have is 5% to offer you; we don’t want to negotiate anything else.’
“The drivers wanted more sick time, they wanted more holidays and they wanted a $2.50 raise. The 5% raise [would be] about $1.32 an hour. We voted on it, and it got turned down by a large margin.
“The company came back and instead offered us $2, but they didn’t say ‘yes’ to anything else we had asked for. We said, ‘No, this other stuff is very important to us.’ We voted on it and gave the company a seven-day extension because our contract expired on June 30.
“We went out on July 7. They came back to us, still offering $2, two vacation days extra, which is what we wanted, but only one more sick day. We aren’t going to vote for it. They know our demands. Until they meet our demands, we aren’t going to vote for it.”
Visalia’s city motto is “The Gateway to the Sequoias,” and people from all over the world depend on the shuttle to see the giant trees. Many hotels and restaurants depend on tourists staying in Visalia while visiting our national parks, and without this shuttle their stay in Visalia becomes less convenient and therefore less likely to happen.
Many Fresno State students from Visalia, Tulare and other neighboring cities often take the long ride via the transit to school without any other option if they don’t have access to a car.
This, of course, doesn’t even touch upon people who depend on public transit for their day-to-day activities. Getting groceries, going to the laundromat, doctor appointments, work, daycare—all these necessities come to a screeching halt. Except that’s not how it works. Life and our responsibilities don’t stop because we need them to. Kids still need to be fed and bills still need to be paid. You still have to get to work on time.
And this truth weighed heavily on the bus drivers on strike. “It breaks our hearts knowing there’s so many people that depend on the transit, but we need to put our drivers and their families first right now,” said Landers.
There was hope when the strike started in July that it wouldn’t last more than a week and that Transdev would agree to the union’s terms. However, the strike went on for more than a month.
According to the Teamsters website, “This is the third time Transdev has caused Teamsters to strike in California in less than three months.” This makes one consider the working conditions that this company puts its employees through.
A federal mediator came to Visalia and met with the union and Transdev on Aug. 17. Following that, the City of Visalia and Transdev posted that an agreement had been reached on Aug. 18 and that service would again begin on Aug. 19.
Landers confirmed that the “federal mediator was able to get Transdev to move on more sick days and some language changes that will benefit the employees. It was enough to get the members to ratify the contract.”
The strike ended after 42 days.