USC shuttle drivers take steps to unionize: ‘We drive so USC can thrive’

An upcoming vote could see drivers joining SEIU Local 721.

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USC shuttle bus drivers came together on February 6 to file their intent to form a union with the National Labor Relations Board, a press release said.

USC shuttles have long been an essential service for inter-campus travelers and commuter students. The extensive route network serves most of North University Park, much of South L.A. and is an integral link between USC’s University Park Campus and Health Sciences Campus.

These university-sponsored shuttles help to streamline student transport, and provide a vital, around the clock service to the community.

But drivers at USC see a marked difference in hourly wage compared to those who have unionized at other California universities — starting at $20 an hour compared to those represented by the SEIU Local 721, who can earn “up to $39.34/hr.”

Drivers are “fed up with not having a voice and earning the lowest wages,” according to a flier distributed by SEIU Local 721 to shuttle operators.

Tuesday USC Director of Transportation Tony Mazza sent a letter to USC shuttle drivers and dispatchers, acknowledging SEIU’s petition to request a union representation election. In it, Mazza informed drivers that they will have the opportunity to vote on whether they wish to have SEIU represent them.

The majority vote will decide whether the entire group is represented by the union. In other words, if SEIU wins the election, they will exclusively represent all USC Transportation drivers.

Among those voicing concern is newer shuttle driver Chris Harris, who has been driving passengers between Union Station and the UPC and HSC campuses for about six months.

“We are one of the lowest paid companies as far as transportation,” Harris said. According to Harris, it’s been more than a decade since drivers have gotten a cost of living raise, and in the last three years, they haven’t gotten a raise at all.

Harris pointed out that senior drivers, who have been driving between 10 to 30 years, have been told by management before that they will not receive their long-overdue raises.

“What’s important to me, and a lot of other drivers, is to be heard, to be respected, to get better pay, to renegotiate benefits [and] to be treated fair,” Harris said.

At 10 a.m., Harris makes sure his bus is ready for the day. By 10:40 a.m., he hits the road, driving around USC Keck Hospital and picking up passengers. When he’s done for the day, his bus, along with many others, returns to the University Park Campus. Some days run longer than others, especially when he works overtime in the evenings.

Moving forward, Harris expressed the changes that he hopes to see as a result of unionizing.

“The hope that I have is for us to have better pay, for us to be able to go to management and speak with them and actually get things done, and to be able to work more together as a team,” Harris said.

Currently, USC shuttle drivers lack the ability to negotiate bonuses, have little to no say on the working conditions of the job or the job itself and “cannot fight back against unjust discipline,” according to the SEIU Local 721 flier.

Krisilda Atiah, a graduate student, uses the shuttle every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to get to her classes at HSC.

“I don’t drive, and driving here in L.A. can get expensive and there’s always a lot of traffic,” Atiah said. “I think the majority of people in my master’s program rely on it, some people I know take it four or five times a week.”

Arthur Smith, a USC shuttle driver for 17 years, says he’s unsure about the formation of a union, and only “somewhat” supports it. “There’s no guarantee that it’ll help us or the students,” Smith said.

Partha Bharadhwaj, a graduate student with classes at HSC, takes the shuttle several times a week in order to get to class and therapy. According to Bharadhwaj, “Unionization would be a fair deal. [The drivers] are always super nice people, and they do a lot for the school. They deserve better representation and pay.”

Atiah concurred, “They’re always super nice and friendly to me. Sometimes they’ll even wait for you if they see you running after the bus, which is really nice of them.”

The program is extremely important to Toby Zhou, a graduate student who lives near Keck and has to commute almost every day for his classes at UPC. “I would support a union, but I’m not sure if that is possible. They give us a pretty good service … and sometimes even tell jokes on the shuttle, but that is something for the school to decide,” Zhou said.

But it seems that the school is leaving it up to the drivers to decide.

Mazza is encouraging all drivers to vote, writing in emboldened letters, “Make your voices heard and do not let others make this important decision for you. Be sure to vote!”

The election will be held via a secret ballot. While no further details of the election have been released, Mazza promised to keep drivers informed.

“This is an important decision that will affect all USC shuttle drivers and dispatchers,” Mazza said.

After this story was published, Annenberg Media received a statement from USC Transportation saying that “shuttle drivers received raises in 2021 (there was a 3% merit pool) and in 2022 (there was a 5% merit pool); [and] there was a pause on raises in 2020 for all employees because of the pandemic.”

In other words, while every employee received a raise the past two years, not all employees received the same amount.