by Lynh Bui and Dianna M. Náñez – Jan. 16, 2012 09:52 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
At the new offices of the union representing thousands of Valley bus drivers, handbills have been flying out of the copy machine by the ream.
Hundreds of signs on wooden stakes lean against the walls of the conference room. And Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 officials have been calling other labor unions in the state, asking for solidarity.
This is what happens when you prepare to disrupt a regional bus system and go on strike — what would be the first in the Valley since 2000. At the moment the strike is called, tens of thousands of passengers could be stranded and hundreds of buses would stop running.
The Valley has been at this point several times in the past two years, with threats of a work stoppage looming during contentious talks between the union and its employer, Veolia Transportation Services. But this time, union leaders say it’s not an empty threat.
Union officials representing about 1,000 Phoenix and Tempe bus drivers say unless something changes with Veolia, a strike likely will happen in February. Bus drivers met on Sunday to plan for strike day, which ATU officials would not disclose.
ATU Vice President Michael Cornelius said the group doesn’t want to inconvenience the public, but relations with Veolia have reached the “end of the line.”
“It’s not the goal to strand anybody,” Cornelius said. “But it will force Veolia and the city to come to the table.”
Veolia spokeswoman Valerie Michael, however, said a strike isn’t the only option.
“They can accept the agreement we’ve presented to them and ask their members to approve it,” Michael said. “It’s a good agreement, especially in light of what’s been going on in the economy.”
Michael said Veolia is not asking for a reduction in wages, hours or benefits, and that Phoenix bus drivers are the highest paid in the Valley. She said the average Phoenix bus driver earns an average of $22 an hour.
Veolia is a major contractor providing bus services in the Valley, operating 31 routes in Phoenix and 19 routes in Tempe. But the company has been unable to reach a labor agreement with bus drivers from both cities.
Phoenix bus drivers and Veolia have been in contract negotiations for almost two years, with employees rejecting the company’s “best and final” offer in August.
Meanwhile, Tempe bus drivers’ contract with Veolia expired in June. Tempe drivers also rejected Veolia’s “best and final” offer in October.
The two sides have been fighting over wage and benefit terms, such as sick-leave accrual, retirement benefits, health-care coverage and wages.
But Cornelius argues that the strike isn’t about money. He said the drivers plan to go on strike over Veolia’s “unfair labor practices.” He said the company hasn’t been cooperative during contract negotiations. Cornelius said the union has filed several complaints against Veolia with the National Labor Relations Board.
“They just won’t bargain,” Cornelius said. “The come in and say, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ ”
Both sides have said they are willing to keep bargaining, but meeting dates haven’t been set.
Phoenix approved a five-year, $388 million contract with Veolia to provide bus service in the city. But Phoenix officials has said that it is not involved in the labor contracts because the dispute is between the bus drivers and the company that employs them, Veolia.
Jesus Sapien, Phoenix deputy director of operations for the Public Transit Department, said Veolia has informed the city it has contingency plans in place to offer bus service during the strike. But service would be at 60 percent, equivalent to a Sunday schedule. Similar contingency plans are in place in Tempe.
Phoenix reports an average of 91,000 bus boardings daily on Veolia-operated routes.
Officials reported Tempe bus boardings at 692,911 in December alone. Tempe has a $124.5 million contract with Veolia to operate the 19 routes.
Phoenix and Tempe aren’t the only place where Veolia is having problems with employees. About 220 Veolia bus drivers in the York Region of Ontario, Canada, have been on strike for more than 12 weeks. But Michael said the company has been able to successfully reach agreements with other unions in New York and Nevada.
The strike would come as a growing number of Tempe residents are depending on buses. Increased ridership has come in spite of Tempe and other Valley cities reducing bus services in recent years to save money during the down economy, said Greg Jordan, Tempe’s interim deputy Public Works director managing transit services.
“Our main concern is the riding public that has to get to their jobs and to school and to medical appointments,” he said. “It’s been a very difficult couple of years for Tempe residents and Valley residents who’ve continued using transit with all the cuts we’ve had to make.”