Dec 9, 2013
Sweatshops on Wheels
Posted on Apr 15, 2013
By Chris Hedges
“This gives state and local governments political cover to privatize,” Robert Molofsky, the general counsel for the ATU, said of the provision when we spoke at the union’s headquarters. “This is the second time that the Congress and the MTA have tried to do this. In the late 1980s and early 1990s under Reagan and Bush they tried but these guidances were repealed in 1994. When you look at what was repealed in 1994 and what has been implemented again in this bill, it is the same thing. We now, in effect, have a mandate from Congress for the federal government to provide the resources, studies, reports and expertise to assist private corporations to take over public transit. The federal government has become the marketing arm for these corporations.”
The $8.5 billion stimulus package for public transportation, largely because of Larry Summers’ insistence, did not provide any money to fund operating costs for public transportation. This meant that city public bus services, which must operate on declining local tax revenue, could do little more with the stimulus money than work on infrastructure.
“I am watching as 80 percent of transit systems have had to raise fares or cut service since the recession and then this money is used to build the bosses new bathrooms or buy them new cars,” Hanley said. “What it speaks to is a really stupid policy on national transit.”
Engineering firms and the construction industry, including the construction trade unions, aggressively lobby for federal dollars in transit, but they make sure the money goes to real estate developers or corporations that build bridges and tunnels rather than to expand service, pay operating costs or cut fares. The nation’s senior transit officials often leave office to lobby for these same real estate developers and construction firms. When Christopher Boylan, who was the deputy executive director of the NYS Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest transit system, retired in 2010 he went to work as a lobbyist for the General Contractors Association of New York.
The wreckage of the nation’s public transportation system is staggering. Greyhound, before government deregulation in the 1980s, had 20,000 unionized members. It now has 2,500. The company, before deregulation, along with Trailways ran a national bus network that provided public transportation to towns and remote corners of the country. But once the bus industry was deregulated, companies such as Greyhound and Trailways were no longer required to serve remote or poor areas. Pensions and wages, especially as new nonunionized bus companies arose, were reduced. Greyhound bus drivers, once the highest paid in the country—in the 1970s their yearly pay was more than $100,000 adjusted for inflation—now make between $40,000 and $50,000 annually. And the company has eliminated perhaps as much as 80 percent of its former nationwide service.
Many bus drivers no longer work full time. And a loophole in federal law exempts intercity bus drivers from Fair Labor Standards Act overtime provisions, which, in essence, forces many of them to work second jobs during their “rest periods” to survive financially. There were some 3,000 bus companies in the country four decades ago. Today there are 152,000. Most of these companies have only a few buses. Companies such as Fung Wah, with its $15 fares for trips between Boston and New York, often have no vehicle maintenance plans. They do not use central fuel depots, instead buying fuel on the highway so there is no record of their mileage. Fung Wah was pulled off the road in February after a series of crashes. Public transportation is increasingly part of the underground economy. Working conditions are punishing and often unsafe. When Fung Wah’s fleet of 28 buses was finally grounded a few weeks ago, for example, it was revealed that three-quarters of the vehicles had cracks in the frames. Three times as many passengers and workers over the last five years were killed in bus accidents than plane crashes. The driver for one Canadian bus company, Mi Joo Tour & Travel, crashed in Oregon last Dec. 30 after falling asleep at the wheel, killing nine people and injuring 39. The driver, it was discovered, had driven 92 hours in the seven days before the crash. These fly-by-night bus companies, union officials say, are little more than “sweatshops on wheels.”
“People now have to drive a bus 100 hours a week to make a living,” Hanley said. “The limit is 70, but there are a number of ways the drivers are forced to break the law. The industry is producing more and more crashes. Greyhound has terminals all over the country that cost them money to support. In New York they have to go into the Port Authority with their buses. The Chinatown companies show up and they have no requirements to go into terminals and pay terminal fees. They have no ticket sales because they do it all online. They have no baggage handlers. And they pay people off the books in many cases. People have been caught driving these buses with no license. The buses have caught fire and turned over on the highway. We had an accident in the Bronx a year and a half ago that was so gruesome the first responders needed grief counseling. … The driver fell asleep. Whenever you hear about one of these buses rolling off the highway I can tell you with 95 percent certainty that the driver fell asleep. And they are falling asleep because they are working long hours.”
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