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Vegetarian Bus Driver Has Beef With Burger Offer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A vegetarian Orange County bus driver has been suspended for, as he views it, refusing to hurt a cow.

Bruce Anderson, a five-year veteran driver for the Orange County Transportation Authority, said Wednesday that he was ordered off his bus and put on unpaid suspension after refusing to hand out coupons to riders for free hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. restaurants.

He didn’t expect to become a poster boy for vegetarianism when he went to work early Tuesday, but as he was about to leave the depot, a supervisor gave him a stack of coupons to give passengers, each worth a free hamburger.

The giveaway, Anderson was told, is part of a promotion to encourage people to take the bus by offering them free hamburgers each Tuesday through the month of June.

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The 38-year-old bus driver refused to take the coupons.

“I told them that I don’t eat dead cows and no one else needs to either,” said Anderson, a strict vegetarian whose beliefs also preclude him from eating dairy products or wearing leather. “I told them that I wouldn’t support Carl’s Jr. in their slaughtering of cows.”

Transportation officials were not amused.

Half an hour later, according to Anderson, transit authority officials met him at a bus stop with a replacement driver, ordered him off the bus in front of his passengers and suspended him indefinitely without pay for insubordination. Anderson makes $16.60 an hour.

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“It was embarrassing,” Anderson said. “I’m paid to drive a bus, not sit there and hand out coupons for something I don’t believe in.”

Anderson’s employers refused to confirm his version of being forced off the bus, but have sent a letter informing him of a “hearing before discharge of disqualification.”

John Standiford, a spokesman for the authority, declined to discuss the incident. He did say, however, that “the passing out of coupons, in this case, is part of operating the bus. It’s one of the many things that drivers do as part of their jobs, like handing out transfers or calling out stops. If drivers make conscious decisions not to do part of their jobs, they have to be held accountable.”

The suspended bus driver has already garnered the strong support of the animal rights group to which he belongs.

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“We think this [suspension] is completely out of bounds,” said Ava Park, founder of Orange County People for Animals, a 2,300-member animal rights organization that is opposed to the slaughtering and consumption of animals for reasons of ethics and health.

“It’s a 1st Amendment issue,” Park said. “You don’t leave your ethics at the door when you go to work. He is being asked to pass out propaganda opposed to his ethical beliefs. This is bully-ism at its worst.”

Park said her group would do “whatever is necessary” to support the suspended driver, including eliciting the aid of other civil rights groups, initiating a legal challenge of the authority’s action and accompanying him to his hearing today.

Anderson said he is being backed by the Teamsters Union Local 952. Union officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Carl’s Jr. said the hamburger promotion would continue.

“The decision to eat meat is a personal one,” said Suzi Brown, company spokeswoman. “It’s an unfortunate incident with this driver, but from what we understand, many of the other drivers are very excited and supportive of the program.”

Anderson said that as much as he wants to keep his job, he will never cave in to the hamburger interest.

“What I did,” he said, “probably saved at least half a cow.”

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