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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 14, 2024


May 27, 2002 – After five years of operations, the home-grown team of Vitran bus drivers and maintenance workers on St. John is history.
The last of the St. John Vitran contingent, four drivers who were working on a per diem basis, were laid off earlier this month. The leader of the union representing the territory's transit workers says they should have gone home long ago, in spite of their efforts to establish a popular public transit system for the island.
"May 6 was the end of our being able to use per-diem employees," Verne Callwood Jr., Public Works director of transportation, said.
That action came two years after the entire full-time St. John transit crew was let go because of a 50 percent across-the-board staff reduction. At that time, 62 V.I. Transit workers on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix got the ax.
The non-supervisory personnel were represented by the United Steelworkers, whose contract called for the last workers hired to be the first fired. Because Vitran didn't begin operating on St. John until 1997, all 13 transit workers on the island, as relatively new employees without seniority, lost their jobs.
Since then, in keeping with the union contract, St. Thomas drivers have been assigned to make the daily commute to provide bus service for St. John. But late-shows and no-shows have disrupted the bus schedule.
Even so, since January public transit ridership has totaled nearly 15,000 on St. John — that's one-third the ridership seen on St. Thomas, although St. John has one-tenth the population of its sister island. Officials who oversee the system credit local workers for Vitran St. John's popularity.
"For the population size, St. John has done well," Callwood said. But that's relative, he adds, because "it's not as much as St. Thomas."
Now, he says, the government budget cuts and contract demands have workers unhappy on both sides of Pillsbury sound. "If we had kept the folks on St. John, it would have been a much better service, no doubt about it," he said.
The per-diem workers were kept on call to pick up runs when the St. Thomas drivers didn't make it over to St. John — especially for the first run of the day, which is scheduled to leave Salt Pond for Cruz Bay at 5 a.m. As the first ferry to Cruz Bay from Red Hook leaves at 6:30 a.m., the only way a St. Thomas driver can make that first bus run is by spending the night on St. John.
The loss of the St. John drivers brought complaints from the riders, especially day-shift workers and senior citizens. Last week at a mock session of the Legislature held as part of Senior Citizens Month, the state of Vitran on St. John was raised by Marcia DeGraff. "I was representing Senator Dowe, and he said I should mention this," she said. "He said there is money available for them [the St. John workers] to be re hired."
The Steelworkers president, Luis "Tito" Morales, is deaf to the cries of St. John. He said there are 40 other laid-off workers with more seniority who are entitled to go back to work first. "We the union have always contended that they were working illegally since so many Vitran drivers have been laid off," he said of the per diem workers. "What they were trying to do was go through the back door and hire them illegally because they were claiming that the St. Thomas drivers could not report for work."
Union officials took their complaint about the per diems to an arbitrator, who ruled in the union's favor earlier this year — leading to the St. John personnel being dropped this month.
Morales said he is aware that the situation has created dissatisfaction among the remaining workers, both those who want to work but can't and those who don't want to work on St John, but can't avoid it. He also said the drivers scheduled to report for the early morning run have to pay for overnight lodging on St. John out of their own pockets.
One thing labor and management interests agree on is the need to upgrade St. John's buses. The customized Mercedes Benz modified buses with the heavy duty transmissions that were specially ordered for St. John's hilly route have suffered constant breakdowns, and Morales says they are not expected to last for a functional seven-year lifespan.
Callwood said riders can expect a change for the better in terms of equipment by July. He said broken buses will be fixed, funds will be available for better maintenance and a new bus service for the disabled will be added.
Last week the Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for Vitran to purchase two new buses for St. John and four each for St. Thomas and St. Croix, $600,000 to hire four operators to run Vitran service on St. John and $700,000 for Vitran operating costs. The latter two appropriations call for the funds to come from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund..
Callwood said he is still hopeful that government and union officials will ultimately "see the wisdom" of once again having resident transit workers for Vitran on St. John.

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