Seattlites push back against bus privatization

By Katherine Morgan (Staff Writer) & Josh Kelety (Campus News Editor)

In an age of increasingly privatized public services, it is not uncommon to see citizens taking a stand against what they see as the corporate exploitation of the commonwealth. Stop Veolia Seattle (SVS), a local community organization of activists, aims to do just that by raising awareness of King County Metro’s contract with the multinational corporation Veolia, a company which operates Metro’s Accessible Service Program (aka “Access”). Access is a branch of Metro that provides specialized buses for transit riders with disabilities that prevent them from riding conventional buses.

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Veolia first started operating the Access program back in 1996. Its contract was renewed in 2011, and will run through July 2018. The company currently operates 75% of the Access service, encompassing 248 paratransit vehicles and 388 employees.

The corporation is a massive international conglomerate. Based out of France and originating from the organization Compagnie Générale des Eaux (founded more than 160 years ago), it contains four sub-divisions: Veolia Water, Veolia Environmental Services, Veolia Energy, and Veolia Transportation. The latter operates in King County.

“The reason why Veolia is so large is because it operates on 5 continents,” said SVS activist Maia Brown. She went on to claim that Veolia holds the rank of being the corporation with the largest number of privatized public service contracts in the world, in addition to holding the highest number of privatized transportation service contracts in North America.

SVS cites the company’s history of unethical behavior and its role as a private public service contractor as cause for concern. “Veolia will go into a new continent with a little bit of money and a lot of promises. However, they allow their employees to work in awful working conditions,” Susan Koppelman, another volunteer with SVS.

Employee-company disputes have dogged Veolia’s past, perhaps due to Veolia’s alleged anti-union attitude. The Seattle PI reported that in 2008, Access bus drivers filed unfair-labor practice action against King County Metro for awarding a contract to Veolia. The contract would have disallowed unionized employees from working in the Access program.

“I have heard countless reports of people, generally bus drivers, who will ask for higher living wages and will get fired. Then, either they will have to find new jobs or re-apply for the jobs that they once held. If they get their old jobs backs, then it’s usually without a pension, or retirement fund or any benefits whatsoever,” Brown stated.

In addition, Veolia’s former involvement in operating Israeli transportation systems in disputed Israeli/Palestinian territory has raised questions with SVS and activist groups internationally. In September of 2013 Veolia eliminated several bus lines between Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank due to protests and opposition, according to Who Profits, a research center focused on corporate exploitation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Issues with Veolia haven’t been limited to its transportation services. A subsidiary of Veolia Water, Apa Nova, received substantial negative feedback from residents of Bucharest Romaina, with over 20% of the city’s consumer base complaining about over-priced rates and manipulative billing practices shortly after the company began its contract with the local city government.

To counter the corporation’s presence in Seattle’s public services sphere, Access staff and employees have allegedly been attempting to re-unionize. Members of SVS also claimed that portions of the Seattle disabled population have also been trying to find the means to speak out about their dissatisfaction with Veolia’s handling of Access and a growing feeling that the service has become worse over time.

SVS have also come up with a few ideas of their own, such as campaigning for King County Metro to end their contract with Veolia early and without renewal; this would allow workers to unionize, and, SVS says, reclaim Access as a tool for public good and not corporate profit.

“[I]n the end,” Brown remarked, “this is really a movement to ensure the freedom of movement.”

On Sunday, March 23rd, 2014, SVS and The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice will screen Liz Marshall’s 2010 documentary Water on the Table at the Northwest Film Forum. The event will also include a panel speaking about ‘The Human Right to Water: Connecting Local and Global Struggles.’ The event will be held at 6pm, with tickets priced at $11 for the general public and $8 for students with a valid student ID.

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue.

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