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Martha's Vineyard Bus Strike Expected to Continue into July 4th Holiday Weekend

Sarah Mizes-Tan

Public bus drivers on Martha’s Vineyard have been striking since last Friday, but as the island welcomes tourists for one of the busiest weekends of the year Vineyarders are bracing for the strike to last through the holiday, and possibly beyond.

At the dock of the Oak Bluffs steamship terminal, there are hundreds of people coming off the ferry to start their vacations, sun hats and rolling suitcases in hand. But before they can get to a bus to take them elsewhere on the island, they’ve got to pass through a line of picketers.

"I mean we're looking for a family healthcare plan, safety is a huge issue, so we're fighting for fair wages and just fair labor practices in general," said Jason Chalifoux, a bus driver who's been with the Vineyard Transit Authority for eleven years. 

The union has been asking for health coverage and higher hourly wages. Chalifoux added that without bus drivers who know the routes they’re working, the strike could mean longer wait times for travellers. 

"I think it's really going to jam up traffic. I think it's going to slow the buses down, it's not going to be pretty," he said. 

The Vineyard Transit Authority declined to comment, but released a statement saying that the union’s demand for higher wages and better healthcare were "financially unsustainable." For now, the company has brought on temporary drivers from other parts of the country. The authority said that day service is currently running at 85 percent of the normal schedule, though night service is significantly reduced, especially to up-island towns like Aquinnah and Chilmark.

The strikers hold signs that say "Vineyard Bus Drivers on Strike," and they chant at the crowd that disembarks from ferries to boycott the buses and take a taxi or rent a bike. About 20 members of the Authority’s 35 year-round drivers are striking. The company has filled gaps with temporary or seasonal drivers, like Jamel Maldonado, a seasonal driver from Puerto Rico.

"I graduated a year ago, so I have student debt to cover," Maldonado said, explaining why he wasn't joining the strike. "This is the job I was trying to take in the summer. Basically, if I make it through to September, I'll get out of debt. I've got to keep working."

Nancy Gardella of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce said she hoped the Transit Authority can come to a resolution with the drivers soon.

"People choose Martha's Vineyard as a destination, whether it's for a day, a weekend, or as seasonal homeowners, and it's important to us to have a reliable, safe public bus system," Gardella said. "In fact, it's one of the bragging rights of the island."

Gardella is starting to worry about the impact the strike will have on businesses, many of whom have employees who use the bus system, and who can’t always afford to take a taxi or rideshare.

"Their staffs are dependent on the bus system, and if a bus route to a more rural area outside the busy port towns stops running at 7 at night, restaurants aren't closing until 1 or 1:30," she said. 

Liz Marshall is a visitor from California, spending two weeks on the Vineyard. She and her daughter were waiting for the bus to Aquinnah. She didn't feel good about crossing a picket line, but taking a taxi 20 miles to the other end of the island would be too expensive.

"You know, I'm torn. I'm a tourist, and I don't want to use Uber. I've never used a car on the island. I want to use public transportation," she said. "But I support them, too, and I hope they get what they're asking for."

Some local businesses have rallied around the strikers. The Dockside Inn has been offering free shuttle services to discourage their guests from breaking the picket line. And some striking bus drivers have been using their personal cars to help regular bus riders get to work.

"I've brought people to Aquinnah, I've brought people to Edgartown, and it's really special because we have a relationship already," said striking bus driver Mike Cochran. "We see each other every day. I might not know a lot about them, but I know where they go to work." 

There are questions around how long these makeshift plans can hold if the strike continues into the summer. The Transit Authority believes it can bring service back to 100 percent operation by the fourth of July, using its replacement drivers.