The bus has always been there for Lizzy Snell. Growing up in downtown Charleston, she remembers her family relying on a rumbling, tan-colored CARTA bus to get them wherever they needed to go. “They had a car for a time, then they lost the car, and we’ve been catching the bus ever since,” she says.

Today, Snell still rides CARTA, especially on the No. 10 line, which takes her up Rivers Avenue to shop at Walmart. If the system were to shut down temporarily, she would find herself in a bind.

Few Charlestonians realize it, but many of CARTA’s bus drivers could walk out of their jobs one day soon if their union calls for a labor strike. And while the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority is funded mostly by taxpayers (through federal and state grants plus a portion of Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax), the agency has no power to get involved in the negotiations and avert a strike. That’s because the bus drivers all work for the transportation branch of a French multinational company called Veolia, not for the taxpayers.

Back in January, leading up to negotiations with Veolia, members of the local Amalgamated Transit Union chapter voted to authorize a strike. The workers and their representatives have been hammering out new contracts with Veolia since April 4, and both sides have been hush-hush about the details. One thing is clear, though: The possibility of a strike is still on the table.

Local union president and CARTA bus driver Herman Smith has refused to comment on the negotiations in recent weeks, but in early April, he gave a long list of complaints: Employees were being called in to attend meetings without full compensation, getting inadequate sick-leave days, working under unsanitary conditions, and being forced to work overtime. “I really don’t want to strike, but if it comes to that, it comes to that,” Smith said at the time. “I’m tired of watching the drivers suffer.”

Veolia touts a record of maintaining jobs during hard economic times, even in recession-ravaged towns like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Valerie Michael, Veolia’s North American spokesperson, says the company has settled 30 union contracts in the last year, all resulting in increased wages and benefits. “I would like to know how that is a bad thing,” Michael says. In Phoenix in particular, she says, while city employees suffered furloughs and salary cuts, the bus drivers got a raise. In Charleston, Veolia continues to schedule negotiation meetings with the union.

“I can’t speak for the union, but Veolia intends to keep meeting until we resolve the issue,” she adds.

Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, does not mince words about what he sees as the perils of a privatized transit system.”It’s like a bus plantation,” Hanley says. “The workers do the production, and the executives walk away with the profit.” When it comes to Veolia in particular, he says the company “has a growing reputation for worker abuse,” pointing to a six-day ATU strike in Phoenix, Ariz., in March over an unsatisfactory “best and final contract” offer from Veolia. In that case, the National Labor Relations Board sided with the union, saying that Veolia should not have made the ultimatum because both sides had not declared an impasse. Veolia has about 200 transportation contracts across the U.S., and Hanley says the complaints about working conditions under the company are numerous.

CARTA Chairman and Charleston County Council member Elliott Summey says an ATU member showed up at a CARTA board meeting in February and announced that the union would strike if an agreement wasn’t reached by April 4 — a threat that never materialized, but was a cause for concern at the time. “I said, ‘I hear you, but the problem is we don’t even have a seat at the table, bud,'” Summey recalls. From an outsider’s perspective, he says, the latest contract offer seems fair. But he can’t take any part in the negotiations between Veolia and the union.

“We want the best for the employees,” Summey says. “It says ‘CARTA’ on the side of those buses, so we do take a little bit of ownership in that.” When he caught word of the potential strike, he called an official from Veolia, who he says assured him that bus service would carry on uninterrupted even in the event of a walkout. While the majority of CARTA’s drivers and customer-service reps are union members — 95 out of a total of 120, by Herman Smith’s estimate — Summey says the Veolia official assured him that the company could bring in workers from other bus systems to fill gaps. In other words, scab workers are waiting in the wings.

How we got here

So how did CARTA come to use Veolia as a middleman in the first place? Under South Carolina law, no government agency can hire union employees. And CARTA, which formed when the City of Charleston called on nearby communities to get involved in public transportation, is a state agency.

The Charleston-area bus system was originally run by South Carolina Electric & Gas, a quasi-governmental body. During those early years, the drivers and customer-service representatives formed a union, which posed a problem when control of the bus system passed to CARTA in 1997. As a condition of receiving federal funds, CARTA had to guarantee the workers would keep their collective bargaining rights. So CARTA called for transportation companies to bid on a contract to run the bus fleet, and Veolia won out. Now, CARTA pays Veolia about $1.1 million a month to drive and maintain the buses, and the drivers all work for Veolia.

CARTA had a banner month in March, providing more than 425,000 rides on its network of buses, the highest March number in the agency’s 15-year history. But fares and passes only generate about 20 percent of the agency’s revenue, with most of the rest coming from federal, state, and county taxes. Art Guzzetti, vice president for advocacy with the American Public Transportation Association, says this sort of financial situation is common in American bus systems. And the same right-to-work laws that forced CARTA to hire a private contractor have created similar situations in numerous other municipalities including New Orleans.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m against privatization, but there’s no inherent advantage of it,” Guzzetti says. “There’s nothing about that private-sector manager that makes him a better manager than a public-sector manager … Of course, if the savings are all, say, in the labor part, then you say all you’re doing is competing for the lowest wages, and that’s a decision that the local community has to make.”

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