DETROIT (WWJ) – A union “sickout” shut down bus transportation in Detroit Monday morning, leaving thousands of people with no way to get to work or school.

“I need 180 bus drivers for peak A.M. service delivery and 175 of them called in sick today, so essentially there will be no bus service,” said Detroit’s chief compliance officer Gary Brown.

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This is what callers hear when on the Detroit Department Of Transportation hotline:

“Sorry to announce that the bus drivers union has scheduled a sickout on Monday, October 21st. Bus service will not be in operation. When service is fully restored, the department will inform all. Again, we are sorry for this inconvenience.”

Late in the morning, dozens of drivers marched in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, chanting, “No justice, no rides.”

Bus drivers rally in downtown Detroit. (credit: Ron Dewey/WWJ)

Bus drivers rally in downtown Detroit. (credit: Ron Dewey/WWJ)

“We don’t come to work to be beat up; we don’t come to work to be shot at; we don’t come to work to be stabbed,” said Fred Westbrook, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents about 470 drivers, transporting about 100,000 passengers a day.

“We come to work to get you were you wanna go, so somebody’s got to let the public know it’s not our fault,” he said. “Stop beating us up; stop cussing us out. We’re here to help you, citizens of Detroit. We’re on your side.”

Westbrook said Monday’s rally has nothing to do with ongoing contract talks. The drivers, he said, are calling for police protection on buses, on time service, and 24-hour service on major lines.

Working conditions, he says, are unsafe.

“This is about two operators being stabbed the last weekend; over eight operators being hospitalized because this system can’t run on time, and we’re packing people in on these buses like sardines,” Westbrook said. “They’re mad, they’re irate, and they’re taking it out on us.”

“We’ve had two operators stabbed, we had a female operator had urine thrown at her and we had an operator jumped on – on the Chene line. It seems no one in the city government or the department cares,” Westbrook said.

Brown says if one drivers gets hurt, that’s one too many. But, he said, there’s more to the story than that.

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“This isn’t just about a safety issue for the bus drivers,” Brown said. “I mean, last week — by a margin of three to one — they turned down a contract offer; so, it’s as much about a labor issue as it is about a safety issue.”

Transportation upgrades are part of the federal grants coming to Detroit as the Obama Administration tries to help the city through the bankruptcy process without a bailout.

Roughly $3 million of the $60 million coming to the city in federal funds for transportation will be used to add security cameras to DDOT buses in an attempt to reduce violence against drivers. Remaining money will be used to upgrade the buses themselves.

Fred Westbrook, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26. (credit: Ron Dewey/WWJ)

Fred Westbrook, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26. (credit: Ron Dewey/WWJ)

Westbrook said they need to see changes made immediately.

“I don’t see [the grant money] helping us right now.” Westbrook said. “Right now we’re getting our heads cracked; right now we’re getting spit on; right now we’re getting stabbed.

“… The million of dollars that [Detroit Emergency Manager] Kevyn Orr is spending since he’s been here, some of that should have been to make sure that this transportation system is running effectively,” he said.

Westbrook said he plans to meet with Brown and Detroit Police Chief James Craig to talk about what might be done.

Caprice Drayton, who arrived at downtown’s DDOT Transit Center to find the buses weren’t in service, was angry.

“I have a boyfriend who’s gotta go to court,” she told WWJ’s Laura Bonnell, “So, how’s he supposed to get down here if they’re not running?  I understand they feel it’s not safe, but what about us? You know what I’m saying? It’s ridiculous!”

With no other options, another regular rider, Brenda McClain, began a two-mile walk to work.

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“Every cab that’s been coming by has been full,” said McClain. “I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Just have to roll with the punches I guess.”