Detroit Bus Drivers’ Sick-Out

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Each morning, Detroit’s municipal bus service requires about 180 drivers, but yesterday, 156 called in sick. No flu epidemic here, but it was in some sense a public-health issue: Those who phoned in were reportedly reacting to a recent spate of violence against bus drivers. In the past week alone, two drivers were stabbed, one was assaulted, and another had urine thrown at her.

These acts of violence are wholly unacceptable, but there’s reason to question whether bus drivers’ profession puts them at special risk. Detroit is a bloody city. As of August alone, 2013 had already seen 197 murders, 6,610 aggravated assaults, and 543 rapes.

And increased safety protections for bus drivers are already underway. The Obama administration recently announced it will send a $320 million bailout package to Detroit, $140 million of which will go toward transportation. Around $24 million will be spent on measures that directly address driver safety.

But the bus-drivers’ union still isn’t satisfied. Last week, it rejected a new contract offer, and there are conflicting accounts as to whether that was directly behind Monday’s sick-out.

Furthermore, the bus-drivers’ union has a precedent of greed: Back in 2011, if you’ll recall, a union contract mandated that the city continue to pay around 100 drivers who weren’t even behind the wheel thanks to a bus shortage. Their average salary then was $37,000 — a modest middle-class wage. But compared with their fellow residents, Detroit bus drivers were doing pretty well; the average per capita cash income is only $15,261.

And Detroit’s residents are already fed up with the bus service that they’re getting (or more often, not getting), I learned last month:

When [Mayoral Candidate Benny] Napoleon spoke at a senior center, he focused on crime prevention, his specialty — but also talked up how Detroit has revitalized its downtown at the expense of his neighborhoods, a criticism that subtly played on class and potentially race. But when it came time for Napoleon to accept questions, most of the residents just wanted to know how he’d make the buses run on time.

Deborah Hogans, an older woman in a wheelchair, recounted to me how she’d tried to take the bus to the hospital the day before. “I was supposed to be getting off to go to [the hospital], and the bus driver took me all the way to Eight Mile, and then brought me back [home],” she said. “That was the worst experience, and I was scared, and [another rider] was going to jump on the bus driver. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna be in the middle of a beat-down on a bus driver,’ and I didn’t even get to where I wanted to go.”

However valid Detroit drivers’ safety concerns are, it’s unlikely they’ll win much support if their tactic is to abandon the city’s neediest riders at the bus stop.