Bus drivers approve contract, service to continue Friday
Tucson's bus drivers voted to approve a one-year contract on Thursday, averting a strike as a contract extension was to expire at midnight. Buses will continue to run on a normal schedule Friday.
Under the contract, workers on the job more than six months and earning less than the top of the wage scale for their positions will receive a one-time pay bump. The highest paid workers will receive a combined 50-cent raise over the next six months.
Sun Tran management called the contract a $1 million package, although their summary of the contract included continuing to pay health insurance costs.
"The good thing is, the buses are running," a union rep said Thursday.
A management spokeswoman agreed, saying, "We're glad there's no disruption in service."
Union workers and Sun Tran reached a tentative deal Wednesday afternoon, and buses continued to run Thursday under an extension to provide union members time to vote on the agreement.
Members of Teamsters Local 104 approved the contract with a 292-93 vote.
Sun Tran's unionized drivers, mechanics and other workers had rejected a proposed contract over the weekend, setting the stage for a possible strike to begin at midnight on Wednesday. That deadline was extended through Thursday to allow workers time to meet and vote on the agreement.
The contract's provisions include:
The one-time increase will see workers move up the pay scale as they had before wages were frozen under the previous contract, said Sun Tran spokeswoman Kandi Young. Workers had seen annual wage increases after each of their first four years.
Starting pay for drivers is $13.30 hourly.
Under the deal, top wages for drivers will be $19.22 by Feb. 1 of next year, while pay for mechanics will increase to $22.66 hourly.
The $1 million agreement includes the increase in the cost of continuing to cover healthcare for workers and their families, Young said.
"We're happy — you always want more, but it's a workable contract," said Andy Marshall, the secretary-treasurer of the statewide Teamsters Local 104.
"We're proud of our folks," Marshall said, explaining that the union's approximately 333 workers at the top of the scale agreed to lower pay increases to give larger wage bumps to the 209 workers with less seniority.
There had been an initial 55-cent hourly increase on the table for the highest paid workers, he said.
"What's important is, the citizens didn't suffer" and the two sides reached a deal before a strike was to begin at midnight, Marshall said. The union rep noted that the short-term deal — the agreement expires July 31, 2015 — means "we're going to be right back here in nine months."
In the joint press release Wednesday, union leaders and management said "both parties are hopeful that the union membership will vote to ratify the new contract and have expressed appreciation for Sun Tran customers' and employees' patience until the union members have the opportunity to vote on the offer."
By a vote of 262 to 79, the members of Teamsters Local 104 rejected a "firm and final" management proposal on Saturday. The union represents Sun Tran's more than 500 drivers, mechanics and service workers.
The sticking point: wages. A freeze on pay raises instituted two years ago was to be continued under the proposal by Professional Transit Management/Veolia Transportation, Inc., the private firm that operates the city bus system under a management contract.
The freeze means that pay for bus drivers lags that of workers in comparable jobs who work directly for the city, said Andy Marshall, the secretary-treasurer of the statewide Teamsters local.
"Garbage truck drivers make $2 more per hour than a bus driver" after accounting for health care costs, Marshall said Sunday. Starting bus drivers are paid $13.30 hourly.
The contract expired July 31, but management and the union agreed to extend it through Aug. 6 while continuing to negotiate. That extension was to expire just before midnight on Wednesday, but buses ran through Thursday to allow the union time to vote on the contract.
Marshall said Sunday that he was "hopeful" the two sides can reach an agreement.
"We're going to do everything in our power" to come to a fair agreement, he said. "I understand how important the transit system is to Tucson — people depend on it."
"We continue to be hopeful an agreement can be reached prior to the expiration of the contract extension," the system's general manager, Kate Riley, said in a news release Monday, echoing a statement released a week ago.
In a memo to Mayor and Council last weekend, Assistant City Manager Albert Elias warned that a strike could begin on Thursday.
Although Elias said in his memo that "Due to the labor rules that govern the negotiations, the city cannot insert itself into the labor negotiation process," Marshall noted Sunday that it is the City Council that "controls the contract" with PTM/Veolia.
Because public employee unions can't strike in Arizona, and federal grants are only available to transportation systems that allow full collective bargaining rights, the city contracts out the management of Sun Tran.
The previous weekend, union workers authorized a strike if a work contract was not reached.
In 2010, drivers went on strike for a week after voting to reject a proposed contract. A strike was narrowly averted in 2012 when a last-minute deal included a one-percent pay bump for the highest-paid drivers and mechanics. That deal included the freeze on nearly all pay raises. Bus workers also went on strike in 2001, in a 12-day work stoppage that required a federal mediator to resolve. The Teamsters also struck in 1997.
Although tickets and passes sold for Sun Tran and the new Sun Link streetcar are good on both systems, streetcar employees are not represented by the union, and the system is operated separately.
Marshall said that the Teamsters will work to organize streetcar workers as well as Sun Tran workers.