Carmen Emery is a school bus driver for Leuschen Transportation with over thirteen years driving experience. The wage at Leuschen is $16.21 per hour for the first three hours of the run. After three hours, the hourly wage decreases to $14 per hour. If the drivers run late for any reason - traffic, trains, construction, accidents, poor road conditions, waiting for transfers, student management, vehicle breakdowns, waiting for a replacement bus – they are not paid for their extra time on the road.
The main areas of struggle in Carmen’s workplace are:
• Low wages / unpaid work
• Working conditions
• Wear and tear on her body from driving
Carmen: When you asked me [to do the interview], I was like, yeah, whatever. Then when it got closer, I was thinking of all these things...'cause that's the reality of not being protected....I wouldn't lose my job. I don't think they'd be silly enough to fire me, but then it means, anything I ask, I wouldn't get.
Rachael: We started doing these interviews in May of last year, and one of the things that surprised us was...how unfree we are to talk about our working conditions....[All but one] has been too worried that there would be consequences.
Carmen: I believe that.
Rachael: So it makes you wonder, like, how free are we if we can't even talk about our working conditions?
Carmen: We're not free.
Rachael: Is there anything specific that is a struggle [at your workplace]? Do you make enough to live?
Carmen: I think my case is very unique in the sense that I've been living with this for years....Most bus drivers either have a pension, or they have the husband at home-
Rachael: They're just supplementing?
Carmen: Yeah, exactly....And so for me, I'm just that kind of person where I'm very wise with money and make decisions that reflect that....I think the biggest thing is we have...such a huge responsibility...and...this new company, they're expecting more and more and more, and I really feel we are underpaid for the responsibility that is given to us....That would be my biggest beef....That's why they can't keep drivers....I'm an older driver, I can adjust, right? But a person that starts, especially if they get a run with a problem...there's many [problem runs] out there...and you figure your time, you're doing the reports, your time, you have to go to the office, the stress you have when you're driving, and you think, "What the hell am I doing? The money I make? This is crazy. I'm out of here." So...especially in the education system...you look at...how much they're paid, and that's because they're unionized, but it's still our tax dollars that are paying for them....Yet something as important as [bringing] kids safely to school....And so it's really undermined the job, not only salary-wise...but even...how we're looked at....The parents, some appreciate, but a lot...don't give a shit about you....And you see it too, on the bus itself....[The kids] don't take it seriously, they think it's a free-for-all....There's many stresses that are not obvious with this job....Years ago...they had done studies about the most stressful jobs, and it was number one or number two, was a school bus driver. And that was shocking. I am shocked there's not more accidents...involving school buses....
So, the monetary is a big deal. And also it's very unstable in the sense that- like right now, they chopped half an hour of my pay 'cause they took away a part of my run....It's like, I'm starting the year depending on so much money, and the consortium can do anything. So, we don't have any rights per se, with the run....So, the monetary thing, and then for me, which is becoming more and more evident, is the body, the consequences to my body from being so many years driving....I have issues....It's the reality of the job….
Years ago, they had given me a 36 [seat bus], and it was really rough, and [I told a manager]...and he just laughed at me....they have all these things that they want you to do...whether it's the hand brake thing every time you stop, which I don't do, because my arm would be out....And they're just building pressure and pressure on drivers, and it's coming to a place where any accident you're going to have, it's always going to be [deemed] a preventable. That's where they're heading. And if you've got three preventables, you're out....They're putting all the responsibility on you....So, that kind of pressure and expectation for the money...we make....I think we're being treated politely most of the time simply because there's not enough bus drivers. I can see the reverse come a day where there's an excess of bus drivers, our treatment is gonna change...big time….[and] they know exactly where you are all the time with their little GPS....I'm sure the day will come when there'll be cameras in every bus....
I'm not paid for fueling. A small bus, I have to be there every second day. When I was doing that xxxxxxxxx...in the winter, it was every day....It's gotten worse in the sense that...there's less fuel attendants, 'cause they have to be on the road now because they can't get enough drivers. Pretty much, the fuel attendants are on a run here or there....So, you have to wait for one person to come out...Whether you go in the morning, you're waiting. Whether you go at night, it's the Handi-Transit….They're not very patient. They're not supposed to get priority, but it depends who's fueling. Sometimes, I've waited up to fifteen minutes.
Rachael: So, that's the worker subsidizing the company again.
Carmen: Yeah, because...I don't know what Leuschen pays us, because Leuschen gets...paid from the consortium? So is this what we're receiving, strictly what they're receiving from the consortium?
Rachael: That’s a good question.
Carmen: So what is Leuschen's input for us, then? Where are they paying us? If I get called into the office for whatever, I'm not paid for that. I'm not paid to go get the stupid updates....So there's a lot of little things that we're not paid for, if you add it up....So it really feels now like it's big business that is ruling us, whereas before, there was still a lot of issues but it seemed a little bit more, less of a number.
Rachael: That consolidation....When companies [want to avoid competition] to form a monopoly....They mean to make it leaner, to put more pressure on the employees and draw more out of everybody, right? They think they can run it better, and for more profit.
Carmen: Well, I think they're thinking more profit first, and then maybe more efficient. There's no more little companies left....There was Alouette. Lockerby Taxi had some runs, a number of runs. She lost it. Then there was the guy in Whitefish...he lost all his contracts too....The consortium...has a point system. The company will be evaluated according to the fleet, and then all the things that happen during the year, then how much bidding....It's going to be very interesting. This year is the renewal of the contracts, and apparently there's big companies coming from outside that are gonna be bidding....Apparently, a company from the UK that's in Canada now, wanting these contracts....We're busing kids local, but it's got nothing to do [with] local, more and more.
Rachael: Well, the capital class is international.
Carmen: People don't see that….There is no more local...So it just feels like...we're being asked more and more, and...the responsibilities are higher and higher, and yet it's not reflected in the pay, and it's not reflected in the conditions....
Rachael: Can you talk a bit more about the things you do in a day or in a shift that are unpaid…?
Carmen: The way I figure, if I'm making money, what they are paying me has to include the run, me getting to the run, me getting back home...the circle check. But that's not how they figure that, so unpaid time is: going to your run, coming back, going back in the afternoon, coming back home. That's unpaid. Well, who goes to work twice in a day? Nobody, but we do. But yet that's unpaid. If you have a special needs run...I had to go get my monitor, bring her back after the run. Not paid. Unacceptable. And those runs are high stress. They should be paid more than...other runs....Unpaid to go fuel. Unpaid when called to the office....Every time if there's an accident, or you're running half an hour late, and that happens regularly....Unpaid....Making bus reports: unpaid if you're gonna go yourself to the school [to] bring it, unpaid if you're going to go to the yard to bring it....When we're called to go to the garage, I have to bring the bus to the garage, I have to park the bus....Most of the time, [I need to] circle check the other bus...then, if it needs fuel, I'm stuck in the lineup....Another thing: they cut the...mechanics....Before, you were at the yard, something is wrong, they would...do it right away....I've had experiences where...I would wait fifteen, twenty minutes before someone would come out, and then they had to do the work. I'm not paid...to wait for half an hour. So when they say, "Do you have time?" I say, "No, give me another bus."....That's a lot of unpaid.
Rachael: What about [the] attempt to unionize there?
Carmen: This one was started by the Handi-Transit and the workers from the garage....They tried to bring CUPE....It was so confusing....All the bus drivers had to go to the office to pick up this paper that [the manager] had...made up about all the reasons why union wasn't good....We had to go vote....It was so unclear. So, for some reason, [management] wanted our vote. Two days ahead, they were after us to come in and vote. We didn't have to, but they wanted us to go in and vote.
Rachael: Were they mobilizing [the school bus drivers] to vote against [the Handi-Transit drivers and] the mechanics?
Carmen: That was it, but they weren't saying it as such....It's still confusing to me, and I didn't try to find out from other people.
Rachael: Were you interested in being unionized?
Carmen: I don't know. Big unions aren't necessarily a good thing, but that's the way it is....Are they really going to protect you, or is it just going to be another lot of business? How much more are we gonna have? I don't know if we would have much more….I went and voted, even though I was unclear….I voted yes for the union ‘cause I thought- I was probably anyways gonna do that….I know people in the Handi-Transit…good workers…and if they’re complaining, it’s because, man, it’s bad…and I believe them….For them, I think [the union] would probably change things. For us, I don’t know how much it would change.
Rachael: [But] they tried to propagandize you…against it?
Carmen: Yes they did. First, the letter, and then, the strong encouragement to come and vote, because they probably realized that most school bus drivers would vote 'no'....See, the problem in this field is that there's a lot of [retirees] that do this that don't need to do this, and they're not helping us, 'cause they don't care.
Rachael: Their appeal to retirees is a tactic to divide workers.
Carmen: But they're gonna have a problem because....There's not that many older drivers now. They have to rely on...whoever's coming in to keep going, but they're not keeping going.
Rachael: I wanna stay on this union question just for a little bit….Part of our position about unions is that- because you were confused about whether [or not they are good], because it seems that they're selling out a lot, too, and we would agree with your analysis...that unions do tend to basically sell out their workers....So the thing with unions is that we've lost control of them, as workers. There's a professional class organizing them, so...the whole point about unions is that they're supposed to be workers' organizations....We can still use unions to advance our interests, especially in the legal realm...but we still have to be organized....It's okay to be with a union, but we still have to have our own organizations….We can't just say, "Yeah, okay, you're in charge of us now." So, along those lines, were you aware of any of the people that were organizing the union there?
Carmen: No, I didn't try....
Rachael: And they didn't...get in contact with you? Do you know if...any of those people...are still trying to organize?
Carmen: I don't know, but apparently they lost...and...it wasn't by much....
Rachael: So, there are still people there today that are interested in organizing?
Carmen: Oh, yeah.
Rachael: The fact that they didn't get a hold of you, it shows that they were struggling to organize….
Carmen: But how would they do that? They can't...leave a letter at the desk for all the drivers to pick up.
Rachael: I think it was probably a really big challenge….
Carmen: They woulda had to make a paper and find out all the buses in the city and go put notes in the buses....
Rachael: So do you think that if you could make contact with the people who want to organize, that you would be interested in organizing?
Rachael: Why not?
Carmen: I have so much energy, and I choose not to put it in that, 'cause I don't...see it as the solution....I'm not political that way....I know we're probably coming from a different stance...'cause you were talking about capitalism....You're saying we're all scattered and we need a unified...front, but I don't agree with that….I believe in grassroots movements….Unions is not grassroots….
Rachael: So just the general concept that individually we are weak and collective[ly] we're strong. That basic concept, when you go and try and fight by yourself with your employer for anything, that doesn't work?
Rachael: But if you're all together, and you're saying, "Look, we're not going to go out unless we get this," that collectively, you're stronger. It doesn't have to be within a union. In fact, it could be stronger without a union....Just on that basic level...would you rather join with your other bus drivers, and try to get some collective action going? That doesn’t feel convincing to you, that argument?
Carmen: Oh, I agree that you're stronger together....It's just for me personally, I will put that energy towards another cause. I will just suffer the brunt of doing this job to put bread on the table as long as I can. And really, it's not taking too much of my energy, that I can put my energy elsewhere where I think it's helpful. I agree that people have to organize....I have a problem with the arguments against capitalism….
Capitalism cannot exist if there's no consumers....Somebody's producing all these goods, somebody’s buying [them]....I hate capitalism...it's a system of abuse, but I hate it also when the other part is not recognized, where people don't take responsibility for their consumerism and their ignorance....We all know that the middle class is what keeps capitalism going, until they eliminate it and make us all poor, but it's still there, right? This middle class is attached to their way of life, and so they're active participants in capitalism....So it bothers me that there's people out there that are just- it's like studying in psychology and studying in sociology. I studied in sociology....It's always...putting the blame on the outside....In psychology, [people] always look inside. It's a different approach. You know, we have to come to that place where...people choose to participate in this system. We're not all victims.
Rachael: How do people choose, when they've been forced off their land, made to work in some kind of employment now to survive because they can't just tend some land and survive that way….[And so now they have to] go buy what they need. All of these commodities are being produced, and then they generate a billion dollar advertising network to promote that these products are good to have.
Carmen: Yeah. But you woke up, you woke up, I woke up. How come the middle class is not waking up? You don't need two cars. You don't need a big house. You don't need to go spend two weeks down south. You don't need to waste your money at Silver City. Clothes that cost a fortune. There's a lot of decisions. You don't need to consume meat, dairy, whatever, and encourage the abuse that comes from...capitalism...domination over all species. There's a lot that you don't have to do. Yeah, you're right. I still have to earn my living, and that's not ideal....I would rather be producing from the land and living peacefully in the environment, but what if people woke up?...Aren't they sick and tired of their life? I guess they're not sick and tired enough because they're not saying, "Wait a minute. What am I doing? This doesn't make sense. Now, what can I do to oppose this system?" And from there, if more people did that, it would lead for sure to a revolution. People are not happy. There may be some sort of contentment, but it's sure not happiness....Half the population's on anti-depressants. So, I'm caught in the system, but I've done, I feel all my life, many actions to oppose the system. The problem is there's not enough of me and you and you. I buck the medical system, I buck this, I buck that. So, I’m not the one making capitalism run.
Rachael: I actually don’t believe individuals can effect very much change on their own. I actually think the only meaningful change we can make is together....The convincing other people part? I hear you. If there's anything that surprises me about coming into motion...it's how fucking hard it is to convince others that we have to organize.
Carmen: I know, but it's more wicked than that, because...even if you're an advocate, you may still be sleeping in many ways....It's more than that. It's how we live, and how unbalanced it is. [A] few people are living [so] richly, most people poor. So, me, you, you, we are responsible for the killing too...because we are part of that system. So, it's so much bigger….But really, when you go down layer and layer and layer, you come to a place, well, I'm part of this, really.
Rachael: I agree that we're all responsible for the direction of society, but I think that, under capitalism, the dominant capitalist class has a disproportionate amount of influence over the direction of society. So, whenever we're trying to influence the direction of society, we're doing it with our pitiful resources, and it's really hard to magnify.
Carmen: So what do you think it's gonna take to get there then?
Rachael: I think it's gonna take autonomous organizing in our own interests....Most people recognize there's lots of problems, but when you ask them directly if they wanna organize, they say no.
Carmen: Well, if everybody organized in something, because it's all attacks on capitalism, whether you're fighting for the bus drivers, whether you're fighting against GMO....I really don't think we're gonna have one unified voice. I think by the time that happens, it'll be too late.
Rachael: I do think there should be different fronts. The thing that convinces me about Marxism, [that]…the fundamental contradiction of society is between capitalists and workers, and in particular, industrial workers. The thing that keeps the economy going is surplus value, and the only workers that create surplus value are industrial workers. So, if we can all be supporting industrial workers, and we can make capital stop producing, then we can stop capitalists.
Carmen: I think our enemy that is worse than capitalism is apathy....People...are caught in their little life circle...and they don't step out of it, and they don't see beyond it. They don't realize the power. If...big enough groups step out there tomorrow...shit is gonna hit the fan....We're more numerous than they are....This is obvious. I'm afraid it's gonna take a lot more suffering and a lot of hardship, and by that time, the system will have placed all the mechanisms to keep the masses down....How are we gonna get out of that one?
Rachael: We have to be ready organizationally for when more and more people come online, 'cause there were those of us that started a little earlier than others, but eventually, with organizing, it's gonna catch on, and we have to be ready when [it does]. There's this idea in organizing, that you're always behind your organizational capacity. So, there's always people coming on before you can actually train them and get them ready. So, the more ready we can be, the better. Also, about apathy, capitalism is the biggest generator of alienation and apathy. It's actually part of the culture that capitalism creates. So, I don't really feel like it's human nature to not care about anything. I think capitalism generates that effect of numbing people....Because it's such a horrible system, people just turn off.
Carmen: They're addicted to distraction.
Rachael: They have lots of different things coming at them, dominating them….What do they call- when you, uhm- to not develop contempt for the masses? Adventurism. If you give up on the masses, and try to think of a solution other than a collective solution, it’s called adventurism.
Carmen: Yeah, well, I mean, I don't hate them. I just, uhm-
Rachael: I don't think you do.
Carmen: I think that there's enough elements today that are obvious. If each individual becomes aware, that would change a lot....We're in the age of information. There's no excuse for not knowing.
Rachael: Did I convince you that workers organizing in their own interests is important?
Carmen: Yes, I think it's important...but I can't just leave it at that. I think it's important for people everywhere to organize for different causes: organizing, mobilizing.
Rachael: If we don't have enough people organizing in the fundamental contradiction...against surplus value creation, none of the other struggles will be successful. What about on that point? Did I convince you?
Carmen: I don't know enough about that, and I think that if there's enough people organizing with different causes, that it will come to that place....Capitalism is on its way out. I think any kind of organization is working towards that end.
Rachael: At your workplace, you haven't made contact with any of the people that were organizing. If they did make contact with you, and if you could connect with a certain amount of people, how many people do you think it would take, that were together as a group, before you would consider joining?
Carmen: Joining what?
Rachael: A workers' organization.
Carmen: That's a very difficult question....You don't know who you're talking to.
Rachael: But this group would actually be an organized committee with a stated basis of unity that you could either agree with or not....How many people do you think it would [take]…where you would think, "Okay, maybe I'd better join this group."
Carmen: There's a couple of hundred [school bus] drivers....What's a reasonable amount of people? I don't need that many people if I know they're organized and they're solid. I don't know. Twenty-five seems to keep coming up.
Carmen overcame opportunism when she worried about the consequences of doing this interview but kept her commitment to do it anyway. We had wanted to sit down and talk with Carmen for quite some time, but unfortunately, we were not able to establish strong unity with her. However, there are some areas where we agree, and so we will continue to develop our relationship in struggle.
Revealing her affinity for workers, Carmen trusted her co-workers and voted for the union, understanding that the company does not represent her interests. She voted in favour despite feeling unsure of the union’s interests. We agree with Carmen that there is cause for concern. Unions often start out progressive in the beginning, but over time become less and less so due to the lack of working class leadership. This is a result of class struggle: they’re weak because they’ve been both constantly assaulted as well as institutionalized. Critiques of institutional unions tend to focus on their bureaucratic tendencies instead of whether or not they are workers’ organizations. But this critique doesn’t go far enough because this bureaucratic tendency corresponds to the class that is leading unions nowadays, namely, the petit bourgeoisie.
How can we tell if an organization is a workers’ organization? If workers are leading it. This is the best way to ensure that our organizations represent our interests. If workers are not leading their organization, workers’ interests will not be determinant. But we can certainly use the union’s initial progressiveness – or their need to demonstrate some level of asserting workers’ interests in order to preserve their legitimacy – to our advantage, because it is also true, as Carmen herself acknowledged, that unionized workers have better wages and working conditions than their non-unionized counterparts. Why shouldn’t school bus drivers struggle for these improvements too? Many of Carmen’s complaints would improve through class struggle: the key would be to build a workers’ committee to ensure school bus drivers’ autonomy with the company and with the union.
Carmen was not convinced that class struggle is determinant. She felt it would be better to continue to endure her working conditions and put her energy into organizing around other issues she cares about. Persevering poor working conditions is an aspect of individualism. Acceptance may help the individual in some ways in the short-term or perhaps even the long-term, but it does nothing to advance our collective interests as workers against our common enemy. When we choose not to struggle, we leave the struggle to be waged by those with even fewer resources. This is the essence of collectivity: one for all and all for one.
But Carmen disagrees. Despite struggling through some longing for a smaller “c” capitalism, which denies the reality that capitalism is built on expansion, Carmen feels capitalism is on its way out and that any organizations – regardless of their orientation – will help to make that happen. We agree with Carmen that capitalism is in crisis, but how capitalism’s crisis is resolved matters. In particular, the system is vulnerable at the point of production and we need to focus our efforts there. We agree with Carmen in her assessment that we have to intervene in many ways against the system, but it’s also true that we have to stop the production of capital at the point of production. It’s important for everyone to understand how all struggles connect to this fundamental point and organize accordingly.
Carmen also expressed frustration with the masses, and what a challenge it is to organize people. We agree on this point. But spontaneity, or waking up, so to speak, will take us only a very short part of the way. Carmen suggested that the three of us “woke up,” but there we disagree. In our case, we were organized by a militant, and it’s up to us to organize others. It’s important not to give up on the masses. This is adventurism. We have to organize in our own interests. Yes, it’s hard, but there are no shortcuts.
Carmen particularly struggles with people’s apathy. Apathy, or alienation, is the direct result of being trapped inside the capitalist economy, being forced to compete to survive, forced to compete instead of cooperate, which is how we evolved. Cooperation is in our nature.
We also share some unity with Carmen’s assessment of, and frustration with, the middle class. The middle class are gatekeepers, they are a buffer for the capitalist class, but it’s also true that they too are dominated by capital. The ruling class will never eliminate them completely, since they play such an important role as a buffer, so we can’t wait for that to happen. We have to convince large sections of the middle class to break their alliance with the capitalist class. We have to convince them to join us. And by that I don’t just mean temporarily on single issues.
Carmen also shared her sense that, under capitalism, consumerism is a more tangible contradiction than class. It’s a popular misconception, but consumption at the consumer level is actually not strongly correlated to production under capitalism. So when we reduce our consumption, these phenomena move even further apart. Add to this the myth of the good consumer driving so-called “green” capitalism, a myth which is wasting precious time and resources in the fight against capital.
Although we’ve made this same decision too, even in this same workplace, we no longer think it’s principled to try to remain uninvolved with workplace struggles. Neutrality is a myth. If we’re not fighting the system at our workplaces, especially at the point of production, where it’s most vulnerable, we are indeed helping to make capitalism run. In every action we take, we’re always reproducing one class or the other. The working class must train itself in these struggles if it is ever to become strong and unified enough to challenge exploitation and domination.
Originally posted at Workers Struggle Sudbury.