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Duggan calls for DDOT bus drivers to get back to work amid shutdown

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Saturday urged bus drivers with the Detroit Department of Transportation to get back to work after they walked off the job early Friday following an alleged attack that led to a bus driver's suspension.

Duggan said the walkout stemmed from an incident on a DDOT bus last month where a passenger boarded without a mask. 

DDOT bus driver has altercation with passenger

"The driver asked where his mask was. He covered his mouth and nose with flaps of his hat or scarf. When the passenger came up and asked why the bus wasn't moving, he stepped over the yellow line," said Duggan. "When you look at the response (by the driver), I am disturbed at the response."

Duggan cited surveillance video on the bus, which appears to show the passenger getting close to the driver and the driver pushing him to the floor and repeatedly punching the passenger. (Warning: The video below includes graphic language and imagery)

The driver was suspended for 29 days and is currently in the appeals process, said Duggan. After that, the driver can go to arbitration.

"I think the steps DDOT has taken today are appropriate," Duggan said during a noon press conference Saturday. "It appears union officials have taken the position that if the suspension is not rescinded immediately, they aren't going to work."

Duggan called that illegal and a "violation of their existing contract."

Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon that Duggan's comments were "insensitive" to the drivers of DDOT who don't feel safe. 

Tolbert said the video, to him, showed that the passenger was the one being aggressive and that the person yanked the chain that separated the driver from passengers.

“The whole tone, the way he came up the aisle, the way he crossed over the driver,” Tolbert said. “We’ve had drivers stabbed and punched. I think that’s the narrative the city would have preferred than a driver protecting himself. I don’t think that driver acted improperly. No one is going to make me believe that he could have done anything differently.”

Mikel Oglesby, Detroit's executive director of transit who oversees DDOT, said during the press conference that he is looking at the videos of the incident and that "due process" is being carried out. 

"I can assure you the outcome is going to be the right one. This should not be connected to transportation in the city of Detroit. DDOT has an obligation to provide transportation to the riders. I spoke to the union, they know that, and we're still at this point," he said. 

"To the drivers of Detroit, come back to work... Listen to what we're saying, look at the video. Let's talk. The riders don't deserve this." 

Tolbert said he encouraged his union workers to return back to work but said they don’t feel respected by the city when the drivers are “constantly under attack."

“It’s not safe for them to go back,” he said. “When you look at all these assaults, they are absolutely right.”

The drivers called the walk out without union approval, he said, “because we do not strike.”

DDOT serves an average of 85,000 riders daily with 48 fixed bus routes, 12 24-hour routes and six express routes in the city of Detroit and neighboring communities, including Dearborn, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Harper Woods, Livonia, Redford Township, River Rouge and Southfield.

SMART is continuing to operate its scheduled service, including SMART FAST Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan going into downtown Detroit. During the service suspension with DDOT additional buses will be placed along key SMART routes to ensure adequate service is available for riders, the agency said in a statement. 

READ MORE: Detroit bus service remains halted indefinitely amid worries over COVID-19, violence

The service disruption comes after a bus driver shortage in March prompted by COVID-19 worries led to a day-long shutdown.

DDOT, at that time, canceled all bus service and encouraged riders to find alternative means of transportation, noting the shortage had only 10% of the buses rolling.

City bus driver Jason Hargrove died of COVID-19 in April after complaining days prior in an online video that a passenger had openly coughed on his bus amid the pandemic. 

To better equip drivers, the city began requiring passengers to enter and exit through the rear of the bus to avoid direct contact with drivers and started sanitizing buses twice a day and deep cleaning them nightly. 

Drivers also continue to struggle with access to public restrooms.

The bus union in January cited an attack from December in which a driver had been yanked from her seat while transporting riders on the east side. It was the latest in a series of assaults reported on board. Complaints over driver safety on Detroit's buses, union officials say, have been ongoing for decades.

Reporter Christine Ferretti contributed.