Phoenix-area bus strike strands commuters starting workweek

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Marie Saavedra

Posted on March 12, 2012 at 6:57 AM

Updated Monday, Mar 12 at 6:28 PM

PHOENIX -- It's day three of the Phoenix and Tempe bus strike. This is the first workday of the strike, which started over the weekend, and Valley commuters who rely on public transportation are feeling the full effects of the action by some 600 bus drivers belonging to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433.

Delays on many Valley Metro bus routes are running between 40 minutes and three hours.

The ATU drivers cover 31 of the 46 bus routes in Phoenix. An additional 300 drivers in Tempe joined the strike, affecting 19 more routes there.

According to Valley Metro, Phoenix was operating at about 12 percents of its normal weekday service at about 6:30 a.m. Riders were being urged to make other arrangements if at all possible.

This bus strike was nearly two years in the making. The ATU drivers have been working without a contract all that time.

Back in September, a union representative called the strike "inevitable" and "imminent."

For 22 months, ATU representatives have been working with their counterparts at Veolia Transportation Services, the company that holds the contract with the city of Phoenix to run most of its bus routes. The two sides have been hammering out a variety of issues in an attempt to come to an agreement that would be acceptable to all sides.

While it might not seem like it, a Veolia representative says a deal could be within sight.

"We want the community to know that in the last 22 months that we've been negotiating, there has been progress made," Valeria Michael said Monday morning. "We had 56 articles on the table when we started. Fifty of those have been resolved.

"We're down to the last six. We've been there for awhile," she continued. "They have to do with the economics. We've made a very generous offer and so we just need the union to step up and sit down with us so we can finalize it."]

In a statement on its website, ATU Local 1433 places blame for the strike squarely on Veolia's shoulders.

"The transit workers have simply refused to strike for over twenty (20) months and have continued to honor a commitment to the riding public that they would only strike Veolia as a last resort," the site reads. "Veolia’s conduct has left their employees with no choice but to take action and the riders should look to Veolia as the responsible party for this action."

The sticking point in the contract negotiations has to do with wages and benefits, including the accrual of sick time, retirement benefits and health-care coverage.

The drivers say they simply want to be treated fairly.

"We want a fair contract," said Carla Johnson, one of the drivers on the picket line. "We want to be treated like humans. We do a job that very few people can do.

"To me, it takes a special person to drive a bus," she continued. "There's a lot of stuff to deal with. It's not just getting on a bus, sitting down and driving. ... We have to watch everybody -- the people on the bus, the people in the streets, the other drivers. We have to do everything. ... It's not a job like most people think."

Veolia has said that Phoenix bus drivers are among the best paid, with top drivers earning salaries averaging more than $50,000.

ATU, however, was not happy with the company's latest reported offer, saying it would increase employee pay by just 3 percent over five years and would take sick leave that employees have accrued. The union membership overwhelmingly rejected the offer.

While the main players here are ATU Local 1433 and Veolia, it's the riding public that is caught in the middle and paying the price for this ongoing contract fight.

Representatives from ATU Local 1433 and Veolia are slated to sit down together Tuesday.

The union says its members will be back in their driver's seats as soon as they have an approved  contract.

"Hopefully we can negotiate a contract within the next couple of days and get everybody back to normal, get the city running again" said Joe Parker, one of the 900 striking bus drivers.

If that contract doesn't come together in the days ahead, Parker said he is ready to stay on the picket line for as long as it takes.

"If I have to be out here by myself, that's what I'll do," he said.

While the strike has crippled Valley Metro's bus routes, which serve more than 200,000 riders every day, the Light Rail is not affected.

If you have questions for Valley Metro, you can contact customer service at csr@valleymetro.org or 602-253-5000.

>>> Click here to see the latest bus route frequency schedule from Valley Metro.

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