Bus drivers strike in support of sacked female colleague
Bus drivers have voted to go on strike in support of their colleague who was fired for repeatedly refusing to take a drugs test after an accident.
The Island's bus drivers and mechanics stopped working just hours after Jennifer Harvey was terminated for “gross insubordination”. It left scores of people stranded with all bus services grinding to a halt shortly before 5pm yesterday.
Transport Minister Terry Lister announced Ms Harvey would not be given any more chances as she'd “gone against her superiors” and refused to take drug tests on five separate occasions.
Ms Harvey, who had been a bus driver for four years, is said to have been responsible for an accident in June, which resulted in a passenger needing hospital treatment.
The negotiations between the Department of Public Transportation and the Bermuda Industrial Union broke down after both parties refused to back down. But only about 50 bus drivers and mechanics voted during yesterday afternoon's two-and-a-half hour meeting.
This has lead to accusations that union officials “pushed through” strike action despite drivers' concerns about the inconvenience to passengers.
The meeting at BIU headquarters was called with little more than an hour's notice and those who attended were visibly disappointed with the outcome. A couple of drivers were even in tears. Workers commented: “We didn't want this”; “This makes us look bad” and “It's been a waste of time, they haven't listened”.
Graham Nesbitt, BIU assistant general secretary, stood on the BIU steps to officially announce the immediate withdrawal of services.
He said: “The bus operators and Allied Workers Division of the Bermuda Industrial Union met and after much discussion, a majority of the membership agreed, that in light of the termination letter received by their colleague, Sister Jennifer Harvey, that they would withdraw their services effective immediately.
“The union wishes the public to know that over the past seven weeks they have worked diligently to resolve this matter with the Ministry of Transport, but to no avail”.
When Mr Nesbitt was asked how many workers voted to go on strike, he simply replied: “More than 50 percent”.
Glenn Simmons, President and shop s steward of the bus operators and allied workers division, was even more reluctant to answer questions, saying he'd “had enough as he'd been talking all week”.
Mr Nesbitt said BIU President Chris Furbert would comment further when he returns to the Island today. He said: “Upon his return to the office, the membership will discuss with him their next course of action”.
The members vote took place just hours after Mr Lister told a press conference that despite numerous meetings with the BIU “progress was not being made” as “the same things kept being said”.
He also confirmed the matter had been discussed at Cabinet level and Ms Harvey's termination had the backing of his colleagues.
Mr Lister said: “I want to stress that the Ministry and DPT management has been more than accommodating to the employee, and has provided ample opportunity for her to be tested in accordance with our established policy.
“And we don't wish to see anyone at a loss of employment, however policies, processes and procedures are put in place to be held and they are put in place for the protection of the employee, the employer and the public …. and they must be followed.
“I can assure the public that this Ministry has worked very, very hard to ensure that a fair, just and transparent process was adhered to”.
Mr Lister said he “really didn't understand” the BIU's position as if Ms Harvey had taken the drugs test, it would have been “a win-win proposal all around”.
He explained that if the drugs test had been positive, Ms Harvey would not have been automatically dismissed. Instead she would have been expected to undergo treatment and counselling with full pay and conditions.
The employment dispute stems from an accident in Paget when one bus rolled a couple of feet into another bus as passengers were transferred between the two vehicles.
The accident on Friday, June 24 resulted in a female passenger being taken to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital with a hand injury.
Ms Harvey had reportedly pulled her bus into a lay-by and summoned a backup bus as her vehicle was experiencing power problems. The handbrake had not been put on and the two buses collided, trapping the hand of a passenger trying to board.
A conditional of employment is that a driver must undergo a drug test if they are involved in an accident that results in a person needing hospital treatment.
Ms Harvey was initially suspended with pay, then placed on unpaid suspension from June 28.
The BIU had called on the Ministry to stand by its collective agreement. They argued Ms Harvey should be reinstated because the DPT failed to follow the correct drug testing procedure by asking for a hair follicle instead of a urine drugs test.
But the DPT insisted she left the scene of the accident, which they say she was solely responsible for, without reporting what had happened and called in sick when she was asked to take a drugs test.
Mr Lister said Ms Harvey had consented to urine test samples and “any other tests ordinarily necessary” for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. He said she had signed the workplace policy on April 9, 2007.
Mr Lister explained that hair follicle drugs tests were now the “preferred testing method” across the world as they detect drug use for up to three months.
Dribs and drabs of workers could be seen arriving at yesterday's meeting from about 2.20pm. Crowds of three or four workers walked into the building with one driver saying: “We're smiling now, but we won't be when we come out”.
It was a far cry from Monday morning's BIU meeting when Union Street was a hive of activity with busloads of about 100 workers being dropped off.
Yesterday's lengthy meeting was described as “heated” with “tempers flaring” and workers getting “hot under the collar”.
Several workers took frequent cigarette breaks on the rooftop balcony and a handful of workers walked out half way through the proceedings.
One female bus driver left the building after about an hour-and-a-half into the meeting saying “it's over for me” adding that she refused to “deal with the bull****”.
At about 4pm workers congregated outside the building for a 20-minute break. The drivers huddled together in the opposite car park and a couple of them wiped away tears as they hugged one another.
Voices were raised as drivers made comments such as: “This is crazy;” “I ain't going back up there” and “enough is enough”. One driver said she hoped more drivers would turn up before they took the vote.
Workers were summoned back inside by someone yelling: “Everyone back inside now” and just half an hour later the strike action was announced.
Ms Harvey could be seen leaving the meeting among a crowd of workers. She immediately left the scene with her head down, saying she didn't want to comment.
One bus driver told The Royal Gazette: “We really didn't want to go on strike because of the inconvenience it causes passengers.
“The majority of drivers wanted Jennifer to go ahead and get the drugs test and be done with it. We aren't very happy it's come to this, but the union has pushed it through on principle”.
The driver added that many workers thought there was “a lot more to it” as “there are so many things that don't add up”.
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Transport Minister Terry Lister has hit out at up to 30 bus drivers who do “absolutely outrageous things” on the job.
Mr Lister highlighted the poor quality of service being offered on Bermuda's buses by drivers who have “very questionable behaviour”.
The Minister says he is trying to maintain a high level of service, but blames a small amount of bus drivers for letting the side down.
Mr Lister said the Island's 130 bus drivers included 80-90 “first class excellent ambassadors of Bermuda”, about 10 drivers who were “just average” and ten to 20 drivers who “should seek other employment as their behaviour is so questionable”.
Mr Lister criticised bus drivers during yesterday's press conference to announce the firing of Jennifer Harvey who is at the centre of an ongoing employment dispute.
The Minister said the amount of complaint letters and e-mails he received about bus drivers was “quite unbelievable”.
Mr Lister said: “My job is to ensure we have a high-quality service for the people of Bermuda. “I want the service to be first class, the paying public deserve a first class service. But these drivers at the bottom really need to raise their game. The top guys are doing it, so why can't everyone else?”