Stricken City

It’s now been a full work week since the beginning of the transit strike that stranded Denver and put us in the national spotlight.

I’ve been taking the bus from Broomfield to Aurora and back almost every work day for the past nine months. For a distance that great, driving during rush hour takes about 70 minutes, and riding the bus takes 90. Even though it takes longer, I’ve found it to be worth the extra twenty minutes each way for two reasons: 1. It’s cheaper, not only on fuel, but also when I calculated the wear and tear that an extra 80 miles a day would put on my car; and 2. It lets me spend that time doing something other than watching the road and flipping the bird.

But on Monday, that all changed.

I didn’t even realize that a strike was taking place when I left for the bus stop. Last I’d heard, the union had recommended taking RTD’s second, much-more-reasonable-than-the-first deal. No one seemed to be predicting that, in the late hours of the night, the workers who showed up to vote would opt to strike instead.

Ten minutes after my bus was supposed to arrive, I really started to get impatient. Four or five minutes is no big deal, but much more than ten, I’ll miss my connecting bus and arrive half an hour later than I should have. I probably would have stood there like an idiot for quite some time if a Call-N-Ride bus hadn’t stopped. “They’re on strike,” shouted the driver through the open door. It sounded like a bad April Fools’ joke two days too late. But it suddenly made sense. She offered to drive me to the Park-N-Ride to catch a different bus. If I’d realized what I had in store, I’d have turned right around and gone back for my car.

Three hours. That’s how long it took me to get to work. Rather than cruising down the highway in a regional express bus, all of which are now out of service, I had to take local routes from Broomfield to Aurora. And it took THREE HOURS to get there… and another three to get home.

It only took one day’s worth of that hassle for my feelings toward the transit workers to change a full 180 degrees. When RTD made their first offer, the one that workers were calling the “nickel and dime” offer, I understood why they were upset. But the second deal was much more reasonable, involving higher raises every three months than most people see in a year. And while Colorado’s not the best-paying state in the nation for bus drivers, we’re certainly not the worst. $18 an hour isn’t fabulous money, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, especially if you ask the $6-an-hour McDonald’s worker, who I would venture to say has to work harder than your typical bus driver.

But they decided that they weren’t happy with their jobs, and that they’d make everyone else suffer with them if that’s what it took to get what they wanted. “RTD is Unfair,” read signs held by strikers marching in front of Civic Center Station. Across the street, a homeless teen held a sign he’d made on cardboard reading, “Go to work — thanks to you, I can’t.” As I observed this exchange two hours into my journey, I couldn’t help but agree with his sentiments. The only people benefitting from this strike were the downtown parking lot owners, many of whom promptly doubled their daily parking fees.

Not only were the local buses on reduced schedules, but the riders were packed into these buses like Polish Jews in a Holocaust cattle car. I really began to fear that people around me would start passing out from the heat. There were three people on every two-person bench, and there was not even enough standing room for the remaining passengers. The contracted bus drivers at the helm offered no sympathy. If you couldn’t push your way through the crowd to get to the exit in less than ten seconds after the bus stopped, the doors closed, and you were stuck on the bus until the next stop.

We keep hearing soundbites on the news from supposed riders saying things like, “Oh, well. It’s an inconvenience but I understand why they’re doing it.” That is complete and utter bullshit to your average rider, and I’d imagine that the news stations have had to search far and wide to find people making these absurd comments for the purpose of offering “fair and balanced” perspectives. The truth is that most of the bus riders are pissed as hell at the transit workers right now, myself included.

And for that matter, isn’t striking kind of an archaic idea anyway? Maybe back in the days of Newsies and railroad builders, such things made more sense. But in today’s America, where someone from another country would happily step in and do your job for half the money, there comes a time when you should just be glad for your eighteen bucks and hour and have a piping hot cup of Shut the Hell Up.

This is one of those times.

The news now reports that RTD and the workers are negotiating a deal that could potentially have buses back on track by Monday. If the drivers have the intelligence I would hope that they must have in order to drive vehicles full of people down busy city streets, they’ll take the deal and get their butts back in the drivers’ seats.

And if they don’t, I really hope RTD says to hell with them and hires a whole new fleet.

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