AC Transit, BART disputes offer contrast

AC Transit, BART disputes offer contrast

Michele Ellson

Representatives of AC Transit and its primary worker union prepared for a hearing on a threatened driver strike - which could be the agency's first in 36 years. Photo by Michele Ellson.

Monday’s fact-finding hearing on a threatened AC Transit strike offered a stark contrast between the East Bay bus system’s labor dispute and the one that has raged between BART workers and the regional rail line’s managers.

While BART workers were embroiled in the fourth day of a hugely unpopular strike – their second – after months of heated rhetoric and blame-laying between workers and management, the lead negotiator for AC Transit and an attorney for the union that represents most of the bus service’s workers offered their testimony on what brought both sides to the brink of what could be drivers’ first strike in 36 years – to a nearly empty room, in barely audible tones that left a handful of listeners straining to hear.

Both sides said they agreed on key issues that led workers to reject a pair of tentative contract deals they had reached – issues that include a proposal that would see workers paying an increasing share of their health care premiums over three years and low worker morale caused by pay cuts and rising violence on buses. And while union leaders didn’t say that they favored a 60-day cooling offer period during which they would be prohibited from striking, they didn’t oppose it, either.

“It would be easier to do this if we had more to disagree about,” said Margot Rosenberg, attorney for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192. “We don’t want to use this forum to kind of come out fighting, because we do want to get back together again.”

In her written statement to the board of investigation convened by Governor Jerry Brown to look into the labor dispute, Rosenberg assured board members that there was “plenty of screaming and table pounding and working round the clock” as both sides worked to reach the tentative contract deals that workers ultimately rejected. But none of that was on display at Monday’s hearing, where Rosenberg thanked AC Transit board members for being involved in efforts to settle the dispute. (BART’s union leaders attacked the rail line’s leadership for its aloofness, at one point posting board president Tom Radulovich’s cell phone number on Twitter for supporters to call.)

“We have taken a low-key approach to this – you haven’t heard about us much in the news. We’ve been trying to sort out our problems amongst ourselves, and I think we’ve done a good job,” AC Transit’s lead negotiator, Tom Prescott, said Monday, adding that he believes managers and unions are close to a deal that workers will approve.

AC Transit’s managers told the three-person board that they need to slow the rise of health care and pension costs that are eating up a growing share of the bus service’s budget after emerging from “difficult financial circumstances” that saw the transit agency cutting service and workers’ pay. Pensions aren’t being addressed during this current round of negotiations, but managers have asked the union’s workers to contribute toward health care payments – a concession they’ve already won from other AC Transit workers.

AC Transit General Manager David Armijo said the agency also wants to “modernize” unspecified work practices and enhance service reliability. (AC Transit did not provide a copy of their statement after a reporter requested it.)

The union, which represents nearly 1,700 of AC Transit’s roughly 2,000 workers, said workers are still smarting from arbitration-ordered concessions that cut their pay by 8.5 percent a year for three years and from relations with management that soured during the last contract negotiation after a long period of harmony. They’re concerned that the raises that were offered in both tentative agreements – 9.5 percent over three years – aren’t enough to outpace the rising cost of living coupled with the health care premium payments they’d be expected to make.

Workers are also seeking safety enhancements following a trio of shootings and other violent incidents that took place on their buses just as the second tentative contract deal was up for a vote, union leaders said; they said the work of a standing safety committee had lapsed as the bus line’s economics fortunes dwindled, though managers – who acknowledged both the morale issues and the safety concerns – said efforts are being made to reactivate it.

Union representatives said workers also want changes that would make it easier to take bathroom, rest and meal breaks while on the job. Union leaders said they had hashed out a deal to allow for restroom breaks but had not reached an accord on meal and rest breaks. Drivers often work seven or eight hours without finding the time to eat or go to the bathroom, they said, because bus schedules don’t leave them enough time to do so.

Union leaders and AC Transit’s managers reached contract deals on August 6 and September 25 that were both ultimately rejected by workers – a development that Rosenberg said disappointed union leaders, who had recommended both deals; on the union’s Facebook page, workers – and particularly, lower-wage workers – questioned the health care contributions they were being asked to make and the size of the raises being offered. Armijo said a cooling-off period, if sought by the governor, could give the union time to “take the pulse” of its members – nearly half of whom didn’t vote on the tentative contracts at all.

A driver netting the top rate offered by AC Transit – the average pay for the Amalgamated Transit Union’s workers, most of whom are drivers, is $53,000 – would net $10,089 in additional pay over the three-year life of the second contract workers rejected. But under that contract, they could pay as much as $7,464 of that back in health care premiums.

While representatives from both sides feel there’s a lot a stake for the future of the bus system and its employees, they were also quick to acknowledge the importance of the system to their riders – many of whom are low income, students, seniors and disabled people who rely on the system to get to school, work and medical appointments. Drivers said they have close relationships with their riders, some of whom they have been shuttling for years.

“When I have a 5-year-old on my bus, I’m the one that looks and makes sure they get off at the right stop,” said Joyce Willis, the union’s financial secretary. “We care about our public, but our operators would like to think that the company is caring about them.”

Meanwhile, representatives of local schools and social service providers who rely on the bus lines let the panel know how big an impact a strike would have on the students and low-income people they serve - some of whom said they set up services on bus lines in order to make it easier for people to get to them.

“This is a serious issue for our students, many of whom would not go to school if they have no access bus lines,” said Matthew Jones, the EZ Pass coordinator for the Peralta Community College District. “If they had the financial means to purchase a car, they would not be standing in line at the bus stop.”

Jones said that 10,000 of the 50,000 students who attend classes at Peralta’s four schools, including the College of Alameda, have bus passes through his program.

“Without the bus lines, you would have students walking to and from Alameda at 10 o’clock at night. As most of you know, that’s not the safest route,” he said.

The board of investigation must submit a report to Brown by Wednesday, which he will use to decide whether to ask a court to impose a 60-day cooling off period. If the court agrees, both sides have said they will work toward a fresh contract deal.

“If it’s ordered, the parties need to use their time wisely,” Rosenberg said. “If we don’t use the time wisely, then we’ll be on the precipice of another labor dispute in 60 days, and nobody wants that.”

Comments

Submitted by Alan Pomeroy (not verified) on Tue, Oct 22, 2013

Thanks for this well-written description of the issues.

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