San Jose officials mark anniversary of VTA mass shooting
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, VTA CEO Carolyn Gonot and ATU President John Courtney in the City Council chambers on May 24. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

San Jose officials are holding a day of remembrance for the victims of the VTA mass shooting one year ago.

The tragedy, which occurred on May 26, 2021, left nine VTA employees dead, plus the shooter—a disgruntled worker who killed himself as law enforcement entered the building. Shots were fired around 6:30 a.m. during a union meeting held at the public transit agency’s light rail yard in downtown San Jose.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones held a moment of silence for the victims. VTA’s colors of white, dark blue and light blue will illuminate City Hall and the rotunda on Thursday. The transportation agency is planning its own memorial the same day.

“There are no words that will be able to express the profound loss we experienced last year,” said Jones, who is also chair of VTA’s board of directors. “It is because of the amazing employees we have, our leadership and supporting community that we have been able to move forward. Today, as we mourn the tragedy of May 26 and proclaim it a day of remembrance, I hope we remember the light of our loved ones, our fellow community members that brought so much joy to our lives.”

The mass shooting forced the public transit agency to ground light rail trains for almost three months. The agency estimated it would restore light rail service by last July, but scrapped that timetable to deal with traumatized workers, repair equipment and establish temporary work sites. Limited light rail service resumed last August, with VTA bringing workers back to tour the light rail yard for the first time since the shooting. Full light rail service resumed last September.

Carolyn Gonot, VTA CEO and general manager who was appointed just days before the shooting, has been trying to help its 2,000-plus members move forward. Gonot worked for VTA for more than two decades before returning to lead the agency.

“This whole week weighs very heavy on our hearts,” Gonot said. “We’ve been able to build partnerships we need and start to heal through this time. It will take time, but we will heal.”

VTA has been under pressure to improve its work culture since the shooting. Last August, IT workers demanded the agency hire a third-party investigator to look into managers who were allegedly bullying and harassing staff. Records showed one IT supervisor had a history of similar grievances. That same month, San José Spotlight obtained records showing fare inspectors have filed numerous complaints about management contributing to a hostile work environment. Allegations of a toxic work culture surfaced in the customer service department earlier this year.

In the months preceding the shooting, tensions rose between VTA management and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, which represents a majority of the agency’s workers. Union officials accused management of not adequately protecting VTA drivers and operators during the COVID-19 pandemic, and asked for rear-door boarding amid a steep rise in infections among workers. The union also requested support with enforcing the mask mandate on light rail and buses. In addition, VTA decided to reduce social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Issues between VTA and ATU continued to grow following the shooting. Last August, a VTA worker who survived the shooting died by suicide. Leadership from ATU, which represented the worker, blamed VTA for his death, saying the agency failed to give workers adequate mental health support. The transit agency called these claims false.

John Courtney, president of ATU, shared brief comments and thanked the city for the day of remembrance.

“I do believe we have a bright future,” he said.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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