On Wednesday May 13, 2020 John Samuelsen, President of the Transport Worker’s Union (TWU) joined Rick to discuss the conditions his members are facing during this deadly global pandemic.  During the discuss President Samuelsen talks about the HEROES Act and the state of transit in the US as privately runs systems are a mess and potentially an enormous risk.  Here is a lightly edited transcript of part of the discussion.

John Samuelsen: Public transit in America is on the front lines of this fight against COVID-19. There’s tremendous transit worker density in most urban centers in America.

Transit systems are an ideal transporter of this coronavirus. One couldn’t have designed a more diabolically effective machine to transport the virus then in city transport systems in America. Transit workplaces are in a state of total chaos right now, yet transit workers are responding. They’re stepping up in the face of potential exposure. 

Rick Smith: As a representative for the workers in that industry, is there a way to do this safely to ensure that your members are safe and also that the riding public is safe? I understand we can’t shut down public transit  because a lot of the people who we are calling frontline heroes need this transit. Is there a way to ensure that we can do this safely? 

John Samuelsen: It’s uncharted territory. I do believe that because of the trade union movement, transit workplaces and transit systems for riders are far safer. Without the trade union advocating on behalf of riders and workers, there would be thousands of transient worker fatalities right now and an unknown number of riders who caught the virus inside systems. 

There are definitely things that need to be done and continue to be done after the virus subsides, such as mass decontamination of railcars, stations, buses. 

It took a long time for the employers to actually grasp the intensity of the impact of the virus.  Unfortunately, we’ve had to take strike action in some locations and threatened strike action in many locations in order to achieve a level of social distancing inside the workplace, the issuance of personal protective equipment, and so on. 

To answer the question about whether it can be done safely: We know now that there are ways to mitigate against the spread of the virus; whether we can knock it out totally, who knows?

Rick Smith: What’s amazing to me is that we haven’t completely quarantined off the drivers. I’ve been calling for bus drivers to have their sections completely quarantined off because of violence. And that was pre-coronavirus. We’re going to be demanding people wear masks, but this virus could get a hold of them because they’re exposed to so many people. 

John Samuelsen: Yeah. And with the bus operator in particular, the mini systems went pretty quickly to a social distance space of six feet that was just cordoned off with a piece of yellow tape or a chain perhaps. Certainly that didn’t stop the spread of coronavirus on buses. 

A sneeze or a hack could spread it 12 or 14 feet, or perhaps even beyond that. So we’ve now gone to the encapsulation on New York city buses, 400 or 500 of them all equipped now with plastic shields to stop the spread of the virus, and that needs to be enshrined permanently.

Mitigation needs to be done before we reopen at full capacity. We’re in the midst of doing some of that right now. 

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Rick Smith: As we just said, we need public transit, absolutely need it. There people who have stayed away, but there are a lot of essential frontline workers who need to get to their jobs. They need to be able to get back and forth. We need public transit. But the sad reality is the numbers that I’ve seen, ridership  is way down, the funding is way down, and I don’t see a federal government or a lot of state governments with an appetite to want to fund the kind of programs that we need because this is a big city thing. 

How do we ensure that transit gets funded? 

John Samuelsen: Well, first of all, you’re touching on this anti-urban agenda that the Republicans have had for quite some time, particularly Mitch McConnell. A guy like Mitch McConnell is viewing this crisis as his opportunity to really attack the trade union movement.

The transit industry is highly dense with unionism, and Mitch McConnell sees this as an opportunity to undermine collective bargaining agreements, to aggregate them wholesale through states and municipalities declaring bankruptcy, and also to do the thing he sought to do for a long time, which is get rid of the defined benefit pension, the last bastion of economic security for people.

That anti-urban agenda that has been going on for quite some time is the hallmark of the Republicans in the Senate right now. And even in the face of this, though, we were able to achieve a bailout. And that was done in large part again because of trade union advocacy.  

Now this HEROES Act provides another $15.5 billion for the second half of 2020, of which a lot of money is going to go to urban transit systems in America. $3.9 billion of that going to the MTA in New York, about $565 million going to SEPTA in Philadelphia, and so on. 

This is the type of action that we need, and it’s not even going to be enough. We just have to keep fighting. 

Rick Smith: This is where the hazard pay discussion comes in.

If you’re coming to work every day and you’re putting your life on the line, there should be some reward for it.  There should be ultimate protection, everything possible to keep people safe, but we should also be paying people a reasonable wage.

John Samuelsen: The hazard pay really needs to happen. The transit workers across the country need to be shown the respect for the hero heroic work they’ve done.

You see Elaine Chao send out a thank you message to transit workers, but that’s not respect. Respect is showing us the money for the work that we’re doing.

This is vital for all the work that we’re doing, and there are campaigns on the way. We’ve achieved a level of hazard pay in some cities, but it needs to be made uniform for transit workers across the United States.

It’s about more than just respect. It’s going to incentivize transit workers to come back to work who are right now, maybe under quarantine or out with COVID-19 itself. In order to have a vibrant, healthy transit system, we need transit workers. And in order to get transit workers back to work, there needs to be an incentive. Hazard pay is a good incentive for them to come back. 

Rick Smith: If your member wants to go back to work, they should be able to do so with hazard pay. But if they want to stay home and stay safe with their family, they should be able to collect unemployment and not have that taken away from them. 

That should go across the board for all workers because I think one of two things will happen:

I think you’re going to see much safer workplaces, and I think you’re going to see wages and benefits rise to get people to come out. 

John Samuelsen: Right. In terms of a worker having a choice to either work with hazard pay or stay home and collect unemployment and worker’s comp, perhaps, we know that the demographic most affected among transit workers and in the general population of workers, is all workers who have some preexisting conditions who are most at risk.

We’re grappling with that right now about how to make reasonable accommodations for workers who are over 60 or even over 55 or 57. Transit workers have a lot of chronic conditions because of the work that we do, a lot of chronic lung conditions, actually, which put us in the right in the pathway of a disease that affects the lungs.

Rick Smith: How do we make sure that the riders are wearing masks and that we don’t have the silliness we’re seeing at Red Lobsters and malls across this country? I’m curious if you have some thoughts. 

John Samuelsen: Well, particularly in the transport sector, each municipality or state or operating authority makes up their own rules as they go along. 

What we need is one uniform federal standard for transport sector work that’s enforceable, not just a recommendation. As of right now, the US Department of Transportation and Secretary Chao have refused to implement enforceable guidelines, enforceable obligations on employers.

They’ve chosen instead to make recommendations and really kind of like tongue-in-cheek hope that the employers go along with it. All that does is give the employer an ability to expose somebody to harm’s way. 

What’s really coming to clarity in the age of COVID-19 is the disparity between publicly-operated transit systems with public workers and private operating systems where the municipality or the state opts to hire a private contractor.

Private contractors in public transit right now are a disaster. It really has come into clarity that an employer that’s out to make money, not out for the public good, is going to take every opportunity that they can to expose riders to harm’s way and use work as this absolute cannon fodder.

This all needs to be rethought. It has to be on the agenda of organized labor. 

Private contractors have no business in the public transit business at all.

Rick Smith: I absolutely agree with you. We’ve got to rethink 40 years of privatization and reclaim many of our core common needs, transit being one of them.

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