November 17, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Brooklyn, NY – The looming Access-A-Ride strike involving more than 500 call center workers in Queens, has been put on hold this week pending the outcome of a Friday meeting between Transportation Workers Union [TWU] President John Samuelsen and Gregory Alcorn, head of the paratransit system’s North Carolina-based contracting service.
Samuelsen told LaborPress on Tuesday that the decision to put the brakes on the strike, at least for now, came as a result of a productive meeting he had with Alcorn last week on the heels of the union’s decision to authorize a strike vote.
“Alcorn's demeanor was one of ‘Let’s try to work this out,’” the TWU president said. “At least for a week, I have taken Gregory Alcorn at his word. And I’ll resume a conversation with him on Friday. If he doesn’t follow through with what led me to believe that the conversation was productive — we will go back to planning strike actions in the imminent future against GCS.”
Access-A-Ride call center workers are predominately women of color, and the union representing them says that GCS has subjected its employees to a litany of workplace abuses, arbitrary disciplinary actions and firings.
At one point during the contentious contraction negotiation process, Samuelsen called Alcorn a “whip-cracker operating an electronic plantation on Northern Boulevard” that should be sent packing. The TWU president said that the company deserved those harsh words, but he now has reason to believe that there is a chance the concerns of Access-A-Ride call center workers can be effectively addressed.
“Progress [in these talks] looks like job protections, and decency and respect in the workplace, which in this case is not just nice verbiage — in this case, it is very real,” Samuelsen said. “The mistreatment of the workers at this facility is appalling in some cases. There’s a whole host of charges that the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] is poised to rule in our favor. We directly talked about that last week, and after having that conversation with Alcorn, I believe that we can work some of this stuff out.”
Low wages are also an issue for Access-A-Ride call center workers. Access-A-Ride is an MTA program, and according to Samuelsen, the $9 to $11 an hour wages that call center workers earn, violates the terms of the vendor’s contract with the MTA.
“The vendor’s contract with the MTA calls for the workforce to make around $14 an hour,” Samuelsen said. “We believe that the economic package that we’ll get to, if we can settle this contract, will be satisfactory and will satisfy the MTA contract and satisfy our workforce as well. But before we get to the economic package, there’s a whole lengthy discussion that has to be had about due process, and about the workers’ rights on the shop floor and about the abuse of the company when it comes to dealing with the workers that are employed by GCS.”
The Fight for $15 movement and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s move to establish a $15 an hour minimum wage for state workers is also hovering over negotiations because the MTA is a state agency. Samuelsen said that the union is, in fact, “pushing in that direction,” but is immediately concerned with the mistreatment of call center workers.
“Wages mean a lot, but this is the first contract negotiation where disciplinary process, due process and fair treatment on the shop floor is very heavily weighed as opposed to other contract negotiations we do with the MTA where the economic issues are the up front issues,” Samuelsen said. “Not to say that the economic issues are not of the utmost importance in this negotiation, but we have to make sure we find a pathway to allow for the correct and fair treatment of this workforce — and that’s not happening right now.”
Tune into the LaborPress radio show/podcast on WWRL 1600 AM Sunday morning at 11 a.m. for more on the looming Access-A-Ride strike.