As a bus driver strike enters its second week in Prince George’s County, several hotly contested issues argued by Veolia Transportation and the drivers it employs remain unresolved. The company, which provides 40 percent of the bus service countywide, said several new rules and an on-bus camera system ensure safety standards are met, while many drivers and their union, Teamsters Local 639, say the changes are too rigid and threaten job security.

According to Thomas Ratliff, the union’s president, bus drivers have lost their jobs and been suspended after minor infractions since the company installed the cameras. To him, it seems Veolia representatives believe they are “above the law.”

“If a person gets caught in the sidewalk, the crosswalk or if a person gets caught in the middle of an intersection with a red-light camera, I don’t feel that my members should be disciplined,” said Ratliff. “I think that their laws are stricter than the Maryland laws. Police don’t give you a ticket for being in the crosswalk.”

After an incident, Veolia pulls the driver off the road, into a re-training class and documents the infraction on their employee file. After numerous infractions, the driver will be terminated.

But Veolia spokeswoman Ruth Otte said the cameras are only used to monitor possible safety concerns, not to harass drivers on the job.

“The cameras only start taping when an event occurs that puts the bus above a certain g-force level,” said Otte. “So for example, if the bus swerves, has a very sudden stop or impact . These cameras are used in transit authorities and cities all across the country.”

Now, if an accident occurs or a bus driver runs a red light, the cameras provide visual proof of the incident, which Otte said is more reliable than onlookers’ accounts.

While Ratliff encourages driver safety, he thinks Veolia’s camera system and other practices are excessive. The Teamsters 639 president said he even proposed an “innocent until proven guilty” clause in the negotiations that was later dismissed.

It’s been an ongoing issue the company knew it would have to confront at some point, as Veolia and Local 639 have mulled over new standards for much of the year.

“We’d been in negotiations for four months and it is our responsibility to maker sure that those negotiations go forward because we have a great relationship with our employees here in Prince George’s County,” Otte said. “But anytime you’re in negotiations you have to have some kind of back up plan in case there is a work stoppage.”

She added the dispute has stifled transportation in the county and Veolia has been unable to provide full service in nearly two weeks.

The opposing organizations have not met since Sept. 14 and 30 drivers have crossed the picket line since the strike began. Residents will continue to ride the bus for free until the strike is over.

Ratliff says a tentative meeting has been schedule for Sept. 29.

Thomas Ratliff 202-636-8178
Ruth Otte 301-493-6345

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO