Local paratransit bus workers consider strike

In the next few days, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) will consider beginning a strike, potentially ceasing to offer its regularly scheduled paratransit transportation services.

This protest was announced on Feb. 6 when the 18 members of the Paratransit Management of the Berkshires voted to begin a strike within the following 10 days. The workers, who are unionized through the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 404 and primarily provide services to disabled individuals, ultimately decided to reject the “best and final offer” that was delivered to them on Jan. 26 after a series of extensive negotiations.

The exact timing of the potential strike is still uncertain, however. It was originally scheduled to start on Monday, Feb. 19. Union members, however, have agreed to hold a meeting on Feb. 21 and delay any action until then. It remains plausible that a strike could be averted if negotiations are successful, but previous talks over the past month have ended in stalemate.

BRTA provides bus services across Berkshire County, including regular service between Williamstown and North Adams. During a strike, however, nearly all transit conducted by BRTA could be impeded, depending on who exactly decides to strike. “If the paratransit work stoppage affects the fixed route bus operators and mechanics, all BRTA services would halt,” BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati said. Considering the strength and apparent solidarity of the union, this option appears very possible. Furthermore, the 18 members who voted to strike consist not only of vehicle operators, but also of call takers and schedulers, making any level of service increasingly difficult.

According to Malnati, these strikes are not unprecedented, but they are relatively rare. “There was a strike by the fixed route operators in July 2003, which lasted 10 days,” he said. He declined to speculate on the duration of the strike but noted that negotiations are ongoing. “Discussions continue between the union representative and paratransit management. There is still time and a willingness to talk,” Malnati said.

Outside groups also remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached promptly. “We appreciate the complexities of running multi-dimensional public transportation services in a rural area,” Director of the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) Paula Consolini said. “We hope that the parties involved can come to a mutually acceptable agreement soon. Public transportation is a critically-needed service in our region.”

The consequences of a strike could be severe for students and local residents. “The strike will adversely impact our students, faculty and staff,” Consolini said. “Some of our students use the bus to get to the local grocery stores, the Rite Aid drugstore and volunteer and course fieldwork. Some faculty and staff use the bus to get to and from work. The impact will be much worse for those in the county who count on the bus for all their transportation, especially the disabled. They don’t have cost-effective, reliable alternatives to the service.” Consolini emphasized that, for CLiA in particular, operations could be severely limited. “The strike will compromise our ability to help get students to their volunteer and course fieldwork beyond walking distance from campus,” she said.

However, numerous alternative transportation options still exist for students, according to Consolini. “I recommend that students use WSO [Williams Students Online], Switchboard and the state-organized Massrides ridesharing app at
commute.com,” she said.