By Lynda L. Jones
Milwaukee County Transit bus drivers are fed up with the physical attacks that are continuing to occur on area buses, and on Monday, June 27 they took their voices to the media.
“We’re Fed Up! And we’re not going to take it anymore,” more than two dozen bus drivers chanted.
What has made these drivers take their voices to the media directly is the lack of support that they say they are receiving from the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).
“If we try to retaliate or try to protect ourselves, they give us suspensions. Bam! You lose your job,” MCTS driver Phillip Lane said.
On June 6, 2011 according to MCTS driver Donald Woodson, he was driving his route, the 35th Street route and at approximately 9:30 am at 35th & Capitol Dr. four passengers boarded the bus. Three males and one female. Two created a disturbance over transfers and then the real intention for the disturbance came to light.
“Two of them held me while one punched me more than seven times over some transfers that he was trying to swipe off the bus, or actually steal. I grabbed his arm to hold him back,” Woodson said.
As a result of this assault, Woodson was suspended by MCTS. Why? In his view, for trying to stop a passenger/ passengers from stealing transfers. MCTS’s reason for the suspension, “Unfortunately Mr. Woodson did not follow safety and security procedures. And that’s why we had to go through a suspension,” according MCTS spokesperson Jackie Janz. She added, “And if Mr. Woodson would have followed safety procedures, it would have been prevented.”
What safety procedures you may ask? Well according to the drivers, those are calling dispatch, which Woodson did do. And keep the bus moving. How do you keep the bus moving while under attack?
Alan Simonis, Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 998 president says that the drivers are not going to take this abuse anymore. “MCTS management does little to support its operators after an assault. On the contrary, they look to discipline their operators and add insult to injury.” says Simonis.
Simonis says Monday’s rally represents an effort to let the public know drivers will have zero tolerance of threatening situations on the bus, so passengers might expect some interruptions. “We want our operators to pull the bus over and say no. If there’s a disturbance on the bus, we’re not movin’ this bus. We’re gonna sit here ‘till help arrives.”
Protesters assert that the private security firm that is being paid $1 million dollars to provide security are nothing more than “rent a cops” and that many buses go without even their presence. Protesters also called out for help from Sheriff Clarke and his department. But, their voices once again must be heard from the administration of MCTS.
In an interview with The Courier, Sheriff Clarke voiced his concern over the safety issue for the drivers and passengers as well. “I have seen the tapes of the violence on these buses, and I am sickened by them. No driver should have to put up with the threat of being assaulted while trying to do their job.” Sheriff Clarke stated.
However, the problem with the Sheriff being able to put deputies on the buses or providing additional assistance falls in the lap of MCTS. It would be up to MCTS to make the request for the Sheriff’s Department to be more involved with preventive measures toward safety. Funding is key, the Sheriff’s Department would need approximately $7.5 million to go back to a consistent 50 deputies assigned to buses, a practice that had been place in the past, according to Clarke.
The position of MCTS according to Clarke and MCTS drivers is that they have the problem under control, with their $1 million private security firm under contract.
“MCTS refuses to acknowledge that there is a safety issue,” Clarke said.
Clarke also shared that his department has already done the studies and analysis on the most problematic routes, and the patterns of the perpetrators of these crimes. The officers of course cannot be on 400 buses, but based on the data that the Sheriff’s Department has already put together on their own, 50 officers could do the job.
Lamar ‘Penny’ Sikora, Legislative Director for Local 998 Transit Union said that he was disturbed by comments reportedly made by County Board Chair Lee Holloway stating that the drivers were merely using this protest and rally as a negotiating tool for their contract. And that there claims were exaggerated.
“I think such comments are ridiculous. The facts are just what we are stating, drivers are being assaulted. Driver’s are not being supported by their company (MCTS), and the further insult is the continuous practice of punishing the driver, when an assault occurs,” Penny stated.
Members and supporters of ATU Local 998 say that they want to let Milwaukee and MCTS know that they are tired of being treated like second class citizens, and punching bags for any thugs who board the buses. Drivers have been continually beaten and threatened with guns, knives, and other weapons, along with being spat upon and verbally abused. Meanwhile, MCTS Management continues to punish drivers with suspensions, and other disciplines, along with denying Worker’s Compensation claims, and forcing drivers to return to their jobs before they are physically and mentally ready to return.
According to the drivers, for two years, MCTS has been dragging their collective feet on providing shields to protect the bus operators, and have been using the cameras that were installed on the buses for their protection against the drivers, only to write-up disciplines.
Calls to dispatch have many times gone unanswered or delayed, while an emergency was in progress. In these situations, drivers have been written up for taking measures in the own hands by calling 911 themselves.
MCTS management did not return phone calls for any comments regarding the claims made in this article. According to the protesters, when MCTS was informed that the rally would take place, the response was, “Do what you have to do.”