ATU Head John Costa: “If you didn’t have a union, who would be making these demands?”

19 mins read

On Wednesday May 20, 2020 John Costa, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union joined Rick to discuss the work his union was doing to protect workers in one of the most deadly of essential jobs and to share his thoughts on what needs to be done before workers are forced back to work as politicians and employers push for a “reopening” of the economy. Here is the lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Rick Smith: As we’ve been talking about for the last couple of weeks, this administration’s not going to do anything to protect workers as we’re forcing them back into the workplace. It’s going to come down to workers protecting themselves, and, of course, their unions doing that.

One of the best unions in the country right now, in my view, at keeping their workers safe has been the Amalgamated Transit Union [ATU], the folks who are truly the essential frontline workers, who are getting people to work and never missed a day. That’s why I’ve asked their International President, John Costa, to come talk with us.

John Costa: Thank you for taking the time to do this. 

Rick Smith: If you don’t have a voice on the job, you’ve got nothing, and it’s playing out right in front of us to where you’re seeing union companies and nonunion companies in completely different outcomes.

John Costa: If you didn’t have a union, who would be making these demands? When they saw this pandemic, the agencies didn’t know what to do. We had to take the lead on this and we had to make demands. As much as I struggled with shutting it down for a while, until they got the buses right, the equipment right, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for the economy, and also for the humans who needed the hospitals and the frontline workers to be there for them. I struggled with this, but yes, if you didn’t have a union, who would be making these demands, who would be standing up and fighting for the working class? 

That’s what unions were all about. That’s why it started–it all started on safety and not dying on the job. 

Rick Smith: Right from the start, I was saying, why aren’t we sealing drivers off in buses and rail cars to protect them? Not just from the virus but from the assaults that have happened in the past.

John Costa: Too many of my members have been beaten, have been killed, murdered on buses because we didn’t have the workstations correctly done like they have in Europe. The industry has it right in Europe.

Larry Hanley, my predecessor and mentor, started this campaign about workstations and barriers and shields. 

Two of my members passed away in Chicago last night. 49 of our members have fallen, heroes fighting this virus, this enemy that’s unseen. We don’t know where it is and don’t know when it’s going to go away.

Rick Smith: It’s a horrible tragedy that any life is lost. I don’t know if you saw Sherrod Brown yesterday speaking with Steve Mnuchin, asking the very important question: How many lives have to be lost for the Dow to go up, or how many lives are going to be lost for an increase in GDP? It seems like we’re pushing people back into the workforce without having the kind of protections I think we need.

John Costa: Sherrod’s doing a great job. He called and gave his condolences when he heard about the recent loss that we had last night. 

The CDC, it’s shameful what they did. They watered down how they’re going to do the reopening. They watered down the regulations to give the agencies a break, and it’s unbelievable that they did this. I’m just totally upset that they watered down–no PPE, no testing, no tracking.  

What our demands are when they reopen: We want the shields to protect them.We want to build the right systems like they’re doing to New York with the UV. These are quick fixes that they can do, not only to help save my members, but also the riding public, and make them comfortable coming back. If my members are uncomfortable, if the drivers are not comfortable, how are the riding public going to feel comfortable?

Our government has failed. In the beginning we didn’t need masks, just to wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Bullsh*t.

At the end of the day, we DID need the masks, and it’s obvious when my members are being overexposed.

I have 49 [members] who are dead, and John Samuelsen from the TWU [Transit Workers Union] has over a hundred. It’s shameful what the CDC and this administration have done with this pandemic. 

Rick Smith: If you don’t have a union, you don’t have a voice in a moment of life or death. You want to have that voice. This administration is pushing people back into the workplace and then talking about immunity for employers for not creating a safe workplace.

John Costa: I sent a letter to every governor in every state along with Canada and our members, making demands that we want the barriers, we want filterized systems. If we don’t get them and our members don’t feel safe, they’re not driving. We’re not moving the buses. 

We’re not looking to take a strike. We’re not looking to hurt the economy. We want to protect our riders and make sure our demands are met if they’re going to reopen. 

I don’t need to have another 50 members pass away because they got it wrong again.

Rick Smith: If we can’t have safe workplaces, then this is the ultimate issue you strike over because it’s not a matter of just feeding your family and keeping a roof over your head. This is about life and death.

This is most certainly a “Which side are you on?” issue.

John Costa: It’s a shame you have to make a choice between a paycheck and a sickness. A lot of our drivers are afraid for their lives. This not only could affect them if they get sick, but they could bring this home and infect their whole family, and we’ve seen that. We’ve seen husbands and wives in the industry pass away at the same time. This is no joke.

Jason Hargrove in Detroit passed away. He was a hero. He knew this was wrong. He noticed the sickness was serious, and he made that video. I believe if it weren’t for his video [], we wouldn’t be in the international spotlight as transportation workers in America. 

9/11, we were there, right? Sandy, we were there. Hurricane Katrina, to every kind of disaster, we’re there, right? Remember us when we go back to the table and you want to take it off of our contracts and off our backs and off of our wages and want to take our benefits away. Make up your minds. Are we essential or not? Are we frontline or are we not? You can’t have it both ways, it’s one or the other. 

We’re asking for hazard pay. You’re saying we should have it, but what do you want, for us to beg for it?

We signed up for this job. We knew these jobs were central; we know they’re 24/7 jobs; we know we have to work nights, weekends. We took it, but we didn’t take it to die. We didn’t know we were going to die on these jobs.

We have major problems with this reopening and the industry has to get it. Our Congress and our Senate have to be there for us.

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Rick Smith: In the face of the CDC basically washing this, the guidelines come back to the fact that OSHA has failed to issue any citations whatsoever over the complaints.

You guys have come with a 10-point Safe Service Plan. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

John Costa: We’re asking for PPE. We’re asking that the passengers must wear masks. We’re asking for testing for all workers, and it should be at the site, not sending them somewhere. We’re asking for pandemic leave and hazard pay.

We’re asking for rear door entry, for moving the fare system toward the back, for social distancing. Also, we have to control the overcrowding. We’re going to have to have workers out there or even the police out there to control the overcrowding once this opens up.

Plus, we’re asking for shields to be put around the drivers, and also filterized systems. We need to have systems that can absorb this virus and stop it from spreading in the air. What good is having barriers and you’re in front of the bus but the air comes from the back forward. We open the door, we shut it, and we’re back with the virus right there. 

These are our demands. A lot of the agencies have met them but unfortunately we have over 50% that have not met our demands, and now we’re talking about reopening. This is wrong. 

Rick Smith: Out of every crisis is an opportunity. I’m listening to you talk about the 10-point plan. It seems to me like an increase in the capacity is what we absolutely need as well. More buses, more trains running so that you can meet the demands without shoving people in like sardines.

John Costa: Right. What they did in the beginning was they were laying off bus drivers and taking service off the roads. And we said, no, you’re doing this wrong. First of all, the CARES Act was to keep people working. Secondly, it’s not your money to keep in your pocket for another rainy day. It’s to use now. So we made our demands that you have to keep more service on the roads and you have to keep us working to keep the overcrowding from happening.

They finally started listening to us and they started doing it. But it was a fight; we had to make demands. A couple of our locals shut down, wouldn’t go to work because of safety. They turned around and met our demands, and we kept the roads going and we kept them open and we kept people going to work.

Rick Smith: If they’re going to continue to push for a reopening without proper standards, without proper safety, then there’s got to be an option. We hear a lot of people talk about choice.

I would love to see the Democrats and sane Republicans come forth with an idea to let people stay on unemployment. If they believe that their health is at risk, it’ll give them a true choice. What’s going to happen once they open up the economy is that people are going to get kicked off unemployment and they’re going to have no choice but to have to go back to jobs and be forced into bad situations.

If the administration is offering immunity, which I think is a horrible idea, then there has to be someone on the other side offering a choice. 

John Costa: You’re absolutely right. There was a demand for bus operators before this happened. And if they don’t protect us and make this job safe, they’re going to go to other jobs. They’re going to go become truck drivers where they don’t have to deal with passengers; they’re going to look elsewhere for work. There is a demand and a shortage for drivers all around, whether or not we have a crisis. 

Rick Smith: All of these people who we now are calling frontline heroes, we now are deeming them essential, who just a couple of months ago were disposable–I think they’re finally realizing that they are important, that their work is valuable, and that they should be valued. 

What’s your message to them? 

John Costa: Thank you. Thank you for doing what you’re doing. Thank you for going to work.    I know it’s scary. I know they’re afraid. I know every time a passenger gets on that bus and coughs, they wonder, do I have 14 days? Am I the next victim? Am I going to be the next brother or sister who passes away over this pandemic?

I say thank you for representing us, for making us proud, and for standing with your union. If we don’t stand together, we’re not going to succeed, and it will be a loss for all our brothers and sisters who passed that the demands we’re making now and the fights we’re having in different states and different cities is going to pay off in the long run for a better workplace for transit people throughout the world.

Rick Smith: Ultimately it comes down to, again, which side are you on? Are you going to be on the side of those who have a voice and have the ability to save themselves and their families, or on the side of all the vulnerable and the exploitable? 

John, I appreciate the work that you’re doing for your members.

Thank you so much, John Costa. He’s the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). is their website.

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In 2005, The Rick Smith Show stepped into a local radio world devoid of progressive talk. Rick took his straight shooting no nonsense Teamster outlook to the air and started mixing it up with conservatives from one of the reddest areas north of the Mason Dixon line. His show grew steadily, attracting listeners starved for a voice that spoke to working stiffs who felt the economic floor crumbling beneath them.
Five years after the start of his weekend program, Rick moved to new time slots and new stations. His show now airs Monday-Friday 3pm-6pm on several stations across the state of Pennsylvania where he offers hard truth and commentary with a unique blend of clear-headed, gruff analysis and bemused observation. Lest things get too serious, he spices things up with a laugh or two.

Rick comes by his outlook honestly. He grew up in the projects of Cleveland, ducking local gangs while doing paper routes and odd jobs to help feed his family. After high school, he went out on his own, driving 18 wheelers as a proud union member. Nowadays, Rick, a father of three, is on the front lines of the class work every weekday from 3pm-6pm. He feels the calling to spread the word about the desperate needs facing workers, and to make the world a better place for kids growing up in what is becoming an America of rich and poor.

Rick believes somebody has to wake up the American working class to engage in the democratic process, but not in the corporate-funded Tea Party fashion. He has the rough edges and the grit of a Teamster; he’s a street talker, but a street talker with charm.

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