Tensions between pro and anti-union GrapeLine bus drivers have escalated ahead of a Friday vote on whether to join a transportation union.
Both sides have claimed the other side has hurled racial slurs, and the issue has divided Lodi's 38 city bus drivers and four support staff.
Stockton-based Amalgamated Transit Union Local 276 has been picketing outside of the Lodi transportation center for more than two weeks. They are trying to persuade the employees of Fairfield-based MV Transportation, which operates Lodi's bus service, to join the union.
MV Transportation took over city bus operations from Laidlaw in 2003, winning a $5 million, three-year contract, which was extended for two years in 2006 for $3.2 million. The contract is up for renewal next spring.
MV Transportation has hired consultants to explain the pros and cons of union membership. Union members have called them "union busters."
Talk of joining a union has caused a deep rift among Lodi bus drivers who say that they normally have a family like working relationship.
At a rally Sunday, Sadqat Ali, a Pakistani American bus driver who is against joining the union, said union members yelled racial slurs at him.
"They called me 'camel jockey,'" he said. "They told me to go back to my country. I have the right to protest something I don't like."
Becky Lopez, who works in the transit center office and is pro-union, found a note in her desk with a racial slur that targeted her half-black granddaughter.
"You will burn," the note read. "You started this union and you are (expletive)."
Source: Amalgamated Transit Union.
Source: MV Transportation.
Lopez said she suspects a co-worker planted the note in her desk.
"I feel it was in retaliation because I talked to the union people," she said.
MV Transportation Vice President Nikki Frenney said the company was not behind the incident and an investigation has been opened.
Ali said he is against joining the union because he prefers negotiating directly with his employer and doesn't want to pay union dues.
"MV hasn't done anything wrong to its employees," he said. "The union says we haven't had a raise in five years, but the fact is that everybody gets a raise on their anniversary."
GrapeLine driver Wendy Jelks, who is anti-union, said people who have taken sides on the union issue have lost friends in the rancorous debate.
"It's so tense that you dread going to work," she said. "It's divided friendships."
Frenney said her company has not tried to prevent drivers from joining the union.
"This is not about keeping the union out, although we prefer to work directly with our employees," Frenney said. "The drivers need to be informed."
According to company records, MV Transportation drivers in Lodi start at $12.25 per hour. After five years, they make $14.25 per hour. Drivers in Stockton, which have a contract with MV Transportation, make $11.68 after five years. MV Transportation drivers in Manteca make $10.15 after five years.
Frenney said the average rider will not be affected if the drivers join the union.
Union dues depend on the value of the union's negotiated contract, union president Vincent Contino said. Dues could start at $35 per month if the drivers vote to join the union and the union can negotiate for $15 per hour, he said.