Shut Up and Drive
Metro Transit Union Accused of Squelching Employee Complaints
It all started when a bus passenger punched out five of Glenn Ruth's bottom teeth. That's when Ruth, a King County Metro bus driver on the late-night 174 route through South Seattle, began pushing the bus drivers' union and the county for stricter safety standards and more police officers on Metro buses. Now, eight years after the teeth-bashing assault, Ruth and another long-term Seattle bus driver are poised to file lawsuits against Metro for harassment. Rather than the usual union versus employer battle, however, both drivers allege it's not the higher-ups in King County who shut down or harass employees who agitate for better working conditions—it's their own union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587.
Immediately after the assault, Ruth began demanding increased security on buses, speaking in front of the King County Council eight times. Finally, Ruth filed a work-safety complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in early 2002. After a six-month investigation, L&I hit Metro with two "serious" citations and an $8,000 fine. Even though L&I says Metro quickly and adequately cleaned up its act—they hired 20 more transit officers, for example—Ruth's story was just beginning.
Ruth, 54, walks slowly and stiffly, relying on his large cane (he's permanently disabled from a second bus-passenger assault that left him with six broken ribs and a torn tendon) as he details "retaliatory harassment" from the union for raising a ruckus over safety. It seems absurd that a pittance like $8,000 would lead to conspiracy or animosity, but Ruth believes union officials incited other members against him by telling them the L&I fine would come out of their paychecks. Fellow drivers constantly sniped at him that his troublemaking cost them money, Ruth says. In the year after the release of the L&I report, Ruth returned to the employee parking lot four times to find someone had let the air out of his car tires. Finally, in the middle of the night of May 27, 2005, someone shot five bullets into his home. According to the police report, a witness awakened by the shots heard tires screeching away up Ruth's long, private driveway. Usually, workers at odds with their union make a report to the National Labor Relations Board, but Ruth says he didn't find out about that possibility until just recently—after the statute of limitations for his complaint had expired. Instead, Ruth has hired a lawyer.
"Ever since he started raising these issues, he's faced retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights," says Ruth's lawyer, John Scannell. In June of 2005, a month after the shooting of his home, Ruth retired from Metro for medical reasons.
Another bus driver, John Henry Jones, has worked for Metro for 26 years and is currently considering filing a lawsuit against the union for harassment and racial discrimination. Jones, who is black, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about preferential treatment for white Metro employees. When asked if he felt union members were harassed by supervisors for filing grievances, Jones replied, "Constantly. In my entire 26 years that's been commonplace." Jones says his car has been targeted in the Metro parking lot, like Ruth's, only someone didn't just let the air out of the tires—he slashed them. "It was an act of intimidation," says Jones. "To retaliate against me for complaining, for going to the EEOC."
The union has an incentive to rein in dissident employees—it's in its interest to maintain a good relationship with the employer, which could be strained if the union makes lots of demands. Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager for King County Metro Transit, which employs the ATU 587 members, says the county takes complaints very seriously. "If somebody feels like they're being harassed or discriminated against, they need to let someone know so we can deal with it," says Jacobson. If the harassment is coming from their supervisor, says Jacobson, then "they should report it to their supervisor's supervisor."
However, drivers don't always feel comfortable taking issues with their boss to other higher-ups, or they may believe complaining within the union will do nothing.
Another bus driver, who believes she would be fired if named, says an executive union officer forced her to sign a gag order after she made a complaint to a King County Council member's office, rather than to her direct supervisor. "They told me that I can't go above the chain of command, and that if I went outside to complain I would be fired," she says. Her supervisor has made life hard for her, she says, targeting her for being a troublemaker in small ways such as writing her up for making an on-duty personal call once when she used her cell phone to report a hit and run.
Ruth says when he asked his supervisor for a light shift because of the injuries from his assault, the supervisor told him to "shut up and drive the bus." "They do mock investigations that go nowhere," says Jones. "When people find themselves in this situation, they're left to deal with it on their own."
ATU 587 president Lance Norton would not comment on the harassment allegations, though he did confirm that safety on Metro buses has improved.