Friday morning my commute went horribly awry.  I left the house at the usual time, and went down to the street to wait for my marshrutka.  There were plenty of marshrutkas running, but mine was nowhere to be seen.  After 30 minutes (far longer than I should have waited), I realized that waiting for my normal marshrutka was futile, so I ran up the hill across the river to try and catch the other marshrutka which comes more frequently (but which I usually don’t take because it requires starting my morning with a steep uphill trudge).  After another 10 minutes without seeing that marshrutka (at which time there were only 35 minutes left to make my usually 45 minute commute), I hailed a cab and parted with a substantial amount of lari to make it to work on the far end of Tbilisi.  As we were approaching my office, we drove along Kerchi Street in Gldani and saw quite a kerfuffle–crowds of people milling around, and the police holding them back to keep the road passable.  I knew something was up.

Of course, as soon as I got to work, I asked my boss what in the world was going on.  She told me that the marshrutka drivers were on strike–starting in Gldani, where we work.  (This is why many marshrutkas passed me, but not mine–the Gldani routes stopped first. so central routes, such as most of the ones near my house, were still running).  The Gldani marshrutka routes were all shut down, and the drivers were picketing at the bus station on Kerchi Street.  By the time I left work, there were no more yellow city marshrutkas running at all.  The strike has continued through today (Tuesday, January 29).  The buses and metro have been more crowded, and people with private cars have been giving their friends and co-workers rides.  I’ve also seen some “scab” marshrutkas.  Minibuses with cardboard signs with the route number on them running that route…I don’t know what they’re charging, since I haven’t taken (and won’t take) one of those.

The drivers seem to be striking to achieve three main goals:

  • 1) higher take-home pay
  • 2) lower licensing fees and repairs (1 & 2 are clearly related)

As I understand it, the marshrutka drivers pay a daily fee to the Tbilisi Marshrutka Company in order for the rights to run a certain route, drive a yellow marshrutka equipped to accept MetroMoney, etc, and in turn receive some money (I’ve heard conflicting reports for how their pay is determined–one source said they receive 10 GEL a day flat rate plus a percentage of their fares, others suggest their only income is their fares).  They claim that with the current system, they barely make enough money to pay their fees.

  • 3) lower fares for riders

Though to me this seems illogical given goals 1 and 2, the drivers claim that lower fares will encourage more riders to take the marshrutkas and increase their profits.  However, as a frequent marshrutka rider I must say that I don’t see how ridership can increase…as it is, the marshrutkas are always crowded to the point of discomfort, and I’ve never seen a truly empty marshrutka except for at the very beginning or very end of a route.

At least regarding me, the strike has backfired as a way of making people realize how much they rely on the marshrutkas.  Since I’ve had to take the metro the past few days I’ve learned that taking the marshrutka doesn’t actually save me any time (despite having to walk both to get to the metro and to get from the metro to my office, whereas on the marshrutka I only need to walk one of those legs), costs me more money, and is far less comfortable. Oops.

Sources:
Democracy and Freedom Watch: A Third of Minibus Drivers in Tbilisi on Strike
Democracy and Freedom Watch: Tbilisi Minibus Strike Continues
Georgia News: Mini Bus Drivers Not Going to Stop Strike Till Monday
Georgia News: Tbilisi City Hall Increases Number of Public Transport while Mini Bus Drivers are Still on Strike

+Facebook, word of mouth, and gossip

UPDATE FEBRUARY 6, 2013:  Check out this great infographic from JumpStart Georgia that explains the economics and conditions of marshrutka drivers–it’s supposed to be updated as they get more information.