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Demonstrators cause standstill at Rapid board meeting

Hilary Farrell

Nearly an hour of chanting and singing broke out at an Interurban Transit Partnership public meeting on Wednesday.

That’s the board that oversees Rapid operations. Its members include mayors and other local leadership from transit boundaries.

It followed an afternoon of bus fare strikes – a refusal to pay bus fare, followed by a statement – led by a group calling itself the Community Organization Coalition In West Michigan. The group says it has no direct involvement with Local 836, which represents Rapid workers.

The chanting began after the board moved to enter closed session.

Instead of leaving, about 10 meeting attendees sat down on the floor.

Organizer Lindsey Disler helped co-ordinate.

"They [the board] kind of has this shielded advantage," she says. "Where it’s like, ‘well, if nobody’s watching us, we can make all these decisions that negatively affect people."

Chants were met mainly by silence from the seated board. After close to an hour, the police cleared the room and closed session began in earnest. The meeting, which began at 4 p.m., adjourned just before 7 p.m.

"I think that the whole issue of how to settle a dispute with a union is through bargaining. This is not bargaining," Rapid CEO Peter Varga says. "This wasn’t even the drivers – this was students here, who were protesting and left when the police came up."

Tension existed from the meeting's start.

Audience members turned their chairs around following public comment, so that their backs faced the board. 'The Imperial March' - Darth Vader's theme song - could also be heard at various points from an attendee's cell phone.

RiChard Jackson is the president of Local 836. After noting the union was not involved with either the fare refusal or the sit-in, he references acts across the nation when asked about the action.

"It's a public forum," he says. "You know, one of the chants that I heard them exclaim [at the meeting] was, 'this is what democracy looks like'. Well, this is what democracy looks like."

The contract between the Rapid and its union expired last summer, following multiple contract extensions.  

Disagreement largely focuses around moving pensions from a defined benefit to contribution model, transitioning the onus of funding from employer to employee, among other changes.

A similar demonstration occurred at a November Grand Rapids City Commission meeting. That meeting was adjourned by officials shortly after a group staged a 'die-in' on the floor of commission chambers.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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