AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION
The Amalgamated Transit Union, founded in 1892, is the largest labor organization representing transit workers in the United States and Canada. Today it has over 180,000 members in 273 local unions spread across 46 states and 9 provinces.
Bellingham street car employees organized on August 20, 1918 to become part of what was then known as the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees of America. W.L. Waldrop was the local employee who led the organizing efforts and later became the union's financial secretary.
In the beginning wage rates in Bellingham were 51 cents per hour for street car operators with 6 months service and went as high as 55 cents for those who had served for more than 2 years. One-man cars (operated with just one person) were paid an additional 4 cents per hour. Time and a half was paid for work in excess of scheduled runs.
In the 1920's there were no benefits, medical, pension, or vacation, and it was not until January, 1934 that the work week was even reduced to six days. The normal work day was eight hours. Wages did improve in October 1936 with street car operators receiving 60 cents and trackmen 55 cents per hour. In October 1937 wages rose once again to 65 cents per hour but more significant was the introduction of paid vacation. Employees were granted six vacation days per year.
With the introduction of buses to the streets of Bellingham on December 1, 1938 all trolley employees who transferred to the bus company of Mr. Walter Brown retained their seniority rights and their wage of 65 cents per hour.
An agreement was signed on February 1, 1939 between the Bellingham Transit Company and Local 843 lasting until February 1, 1940 and offered very little substantive change from the trolley company's contract. The work week remained at eight hours per day, six days per week with 15 minutes at the beginning and ending of each shift for bus preparation or paperwork. In February, 1942 the ATU negotiated an increased wage for operators giving them 75 cent per hour. For the times this was quite a respectable income.
Stretching from the 1940's up through the early 1970's operator wages generally reflected the fortunes of each respective bus company owner. When times were good, the drivers benefited, and when times were hard drivers received not even the guarantee of full time work. And yet during all the uncertain years of private ownership in Bellingham, as more and more people shifted to the automobile for their transportation needs, ATU 843 transit employees not once waged a strike or a walkout. Through it all, they continued to be held in high esteem by the various private owners and the community they served.
For bus drivers the benefit package reflected the times as well. It was not until the 1970's that there was a retirement system. Many drivers worked beyond the age of 70 before they were able to retire. Oscar Milholland put in over 49 years of service, Bert Garris 43 years, Pete Hay 31 years, George Erickson 37 years, and Claude Williams 37 years. These elderly drivers became "transit icons" in the community and were much beloved by their riders. It was not until after nearly 53 years of private ownership that transit employees would finally qualify for a retirement program. This became a reality in 1971 when the years of private ownership ended and transit became a department of the City of Bellingham. Shortly after the introduction of the pension plan, the ATU negotiated with the City to expand their benefit package to include a medical plan as well.
The Amalgamated Transit Union has been an integral part of public transportation in Whatcom County for over eighty-five years. It has been a force in protecting and assisting all it's members. And during their long history labor has been supportive of building and maintaining a cohesive and productive relationship with the company owners and managers. This relationship continues today between the ATU and the WTA. Both share a common vision and goal; to provide safe reliable, and friendly transit service to Whatcom County. Through the uncertainties of time, times both good and bad, one element has been a constant for ATU members. A dedication to public transportation and a genuine concern for their passengers.
Written by Chuck Boyle