About 300 of the more than 400 drivers who work for Montgomery County's Ride-On bus system, along with nearly 100 other blue-collar employes of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, have requested a union representation election.
The campaign is part of an attempt by the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization to bring in more than 1,200 unorganized trade and service laborers of the transportation department as a new unit.
The employes organization, which merged about six months ago with the Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, already represents about 2,300 office and professional employes of the county.
After they certify the transportation workers' petition, county personnel officials said, they will post notices asking employes if they wish to draw up an "intervening petition" for a second union to be placed on the ballot. Several years ago, during a similar organization effort, four unions made overtures to DOT employes, but none of the organizations received sufficient support for an election.
Drivers say the organizing effort is aimed at increasing the prestige, pride and pay of the Ride-On operators.
"We've been talking about this for a while," said driver Robert Allen, who is assigned to routes in Gaithersburg and Rockville, "but we just haven't respected ourselves enough to get our act together till now."
Allen and Silver Spring operator Jerome Johnson have headed a drive that in six weeks has collected signatures of about a third of the 1,200 eligible transportation employes, including 50 in one day in Silver Spring.
Starting drivers for Ride-On, a 52-route, county-owned system serving Metro stations, are paid about $7 an hour. After five years with the system, Allen, who is now eighth in seniority at the Gaithersburg division, makes $8.30 an hour.
"I find it a little hard to live on $17,500 a year," Allen said. "I worked nearly 500 hours overtime last year just to make ends meet."
By comparison, Metrobus drivers -- who first are hired as part-time, 30-hour-a-week operators and move after three years into the pool from which full-time drivers are chosen -- begin at $10.25 an hour. After three years, Metro drivers make $13.60 an hour.
The county employes union is trying to organize all trade and service workers of the transportation department, including highway maintenance staff, depot workers, equipment managers, along with some transport and warehouse workers of the Liquor Control Board. The drivers are currently grouped as Grade 10; a county personnel draft study has recommended they be upgraded to 11, which would increase their pay by 5 percent.
Ride-On operators maintain that they are paid less than other transportation department employes whose jobs are not as demanding.
At the Liquor Board's warehouse on Shady Grove Road, they point out, Grade 10 is the classification for "warehouse worker-2," while forklift drivers are classed Grade 12, inventory packers are Grade 13, and the liquor delivery truck drivers are classified as Grade 14.
A spokesman for the county's personnel department suggested that such variables as "the physical demands" of unpacking the trucks and the "greater public contacts" of dealing with retail store managers might account for the liquor drivers' higher classification.
"It seems strange that the people who haul liquor around make more than the ones who drive people around," Allen said.
The instigation of a new policy governing unscheduled leave is also coming under criticism by drivers. A driver who has been late or taken emergency leave 15 times in a year can be suspended or terminated.
When they announced the policy, supervisors went back a year to establish a base record of the leaves, a move some operators have called punitive.
Drivers have also expressed concern over the recent firing of a Ride-On operator. The woman, who had repeatedly applied for reassignment away from her route because of trouble with residents along the route, reported that she was attacked in the bus by two passengers who cracked one of her ribs. In pursuit of the men, she drove off her route, a violation for which she was subsequently fired.
The two passengers filed assault charges against her after the incident, but the case was dismissed when passengers and other witnesses testified on her behalf. The driver's firing is being appealed to the Merit System Protection Board.
"They took the attackers' side against her," said another driver. "If anything, they should have taken her to the police and helped her file her report."
Johnson and Allen say the annual turnover rate among operators may be as high as 40 percent, a phenomenon they attribute to the stress of the situation. At Metro, officials say they lose only about 5 percent of drivers every year, counting those who retire or die.
"It's counterproductive," Allen says of the turnover, "but it's cheap."