Over the course of the week leading up to the Superbowl, bus drivers with MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) have been engaging in a “sick-out” strike to push for a stronger union contract.
On Monday, more than 100 drivers called in sick; on Tuesday, the number is at least 73, and Marta was still reporting more than 40 out on Wednesday. The leadership of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 732 wrapped up negotiations with MARTA on Saturday night and is trying to quickly sell the contract to the workers, although the workers first learned about this contract from this write up in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
[the contract will] give employee [sic] an across-the-board pay increase of 3 percent a year for three years. It also would pay an additional 25 cents an hour in longevity premiums to all employees with at least 20 years of service. And it would implement an immediate “parity pay adjustment” of 50 cents an hour for all bus and rail operators and $1 an hour for mechanics and other skilled technicians.
This agreement came after months of negotiations between MARTA and the union, during which ATU members were kept completely in the dark. The workers’ sick-outs express their opposition to that agreement, at the same time as they register a dissatisfaction with the union leadership. MARTA has the only public-sector union contract in Georgia, and yet there are workers who have to choose between paying for insurance or paying their mortgage. MARTA workers deserve more, and they are aware of the unique opportunity they have to flex their power in the lead up to the Super Bowl. If they do show their strength, they’ll also provide a huge inspiration for workers across Georgia and the US
In response, ATU leadership has disavowed any action, pledged partnership with MARTA management, and encouraged their members to take down the flyer wherever they see it. They are also rushing to get this agreement ratified as quickly as possible, to prevent any disruption to the Super Bowl. They are holding ‘informational meetings’ about the contract this Thursday and Friday, and holding a ratification vote on Saturday, the day before the game.
In their zeal to end the sickout and get the contract ratified, it’s hard to see a difference between the ATU leadership and MARTA management. MARTA are also doing everything they can to put this fire out, claiming that it is an ‘illegal strike’ that breaks state laws and seeking an injunction. This is the same state law that was used – unsuccessfully – to try to prevent last year’s sickout by DeKalb County school bus drivers. When workers act together, they can overturn these unjust laws.
MARTA workers are taking things into their own hands to get the results they want. In this, they are following numerous local and national examples where workers have won by leading their own struggles, from the recent actions of airport workers who destroyed the government shutdown, to last year’s sickout of Dekalb school bus drivers, and the unprecedented strike at MARTA Mobility.
- In February of 2018, MARTA Mobility workers staged a one-day strike to force management to recognize them as part of the ATU. This was the first strike in MARTA’s history. In April, they threatened another strike during contract negotiations, and won everything they were fighting for.
- That same week, roughly 450 Dekalb County school bus drivers staged a sick-out for better pay and benefits. Several of them were immediately fired, but organized a successful campaign of direct action to force the school board to reinstate them. Over several months, they held visibility actions, maintained their solidarity, and won reinstatement in September 2018, which was a first step to continue organizing.
- The sick-outs at MARTA also follow directly after TSA worker sick-outs caused significant delays at several U.S. airports, directly contributing to the push that forced the end of the government shutdown. These actions can be understood in the wider context of workers mobilizing to demand greater pay, benefits, support, and input in the decision-making processes directly affecting their lives.
The collusion between ATU leadership and MARTA management to push this deal through is proof that they know how much power the workers have right now, and are scared of the possibilities. Although the union leadership and management are acting like the negotiations are finished, they still need the membership’s approval. Local 732 members have been known to reject bad agreements before, and they may well do so again. These sickouts are a good tactic to put pressure for something better. If workers are able to continue and accelerate these sickouts into Super Bowl weekend, they can push for much more.
The Atlanta IWW supports the struggles of MARTA workers and stands committed to all workers fighting to take control of their lives. Just as MARTA workers can draw inspiration from workers at MARTA Mobility, DeKalb county schools, and the Atlanta airport, they can also give an example to workers across Georgia and across the country. When workers stick together, we will win!