End of bus strike? 'Handshake agreement' reached

Posted: Updated:
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- Bus drivers on the picket line heard from their union leaders Wednesday that a tentative agreement has been reached in the five-day-old bus strike and a vote is expected Thursday.

During a news conference Wednesday morning, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton confirmed that, saying there is a "handshake agreement" in place.

"On behalf of the people of the city Phoenix, I'm really proud," Stanton said, praising the diligent work of everyone involved in the negotiations. "They're going to go right back in to the federal mediator's office to put pen to paper to get the job done, to finish this agreement."

Representatives of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 and Veolia Transportation Services sat down Tuesday to try and hammer out a contract after 22 months of negotiations culminated in a strike.

More than 900 bus drivers in Phoenix and Tempe walked off the job over the weekend, stranding thousands of riders all over the Valley who rely on bus service to get to and from work and school.

Veolia operates half of Valley Metro's bus routes.

The major points of contention in the contentious contract negotiations have been wages, sick-leave accrual, retirement benefits and health-care coverage.

Representatives from both sides are expected to come together again Wednesday to put the final touches on the new proposed contract. Details were expected by the end of the day.

According to bus drivers who are walking the picket line, their union leaders are urging them to approve the coming proposal. That vote is expected Thursday.

"We will know later on today exactly what we'll be getting," said Frank Zuckerbrow, ATU Local 1433 chief steward. "What we heard, though, is that it went good. This is the first time we all got together that there was significant progress since July 1, 2010, the first time that the leadership has been able to say that they're going to have a vote and that they can recommend the contract."

While Veolia has continually said that it has offered a "generous" package, drivers said the company had been bargaining in "bad faith" and that they have been fighting to keep benefits they already have.

"We've been working without a contract because we have a relationship with our passengers," said longtime driver Patricia Moore Tuesday morning, before representatives from both sides met. "I feel bad about leaving my passengers out there. But we've got to do what we've to do. The things that they're doing to us, it's unacceptable."

"We want a fair contract," fellow driver Carla Johnson said on Monday, the first workday of the strike.

Based on what the union leaders were telling their members Wednesday morning, they're getting just that.

Bus drivers told 3TV's Tess Rafols that if all goes well, they could be back on the road as soon as Friday morning.

The strike has reduced bus service to just a fraction of its normal level for the past several days.

During his short news conference, Stanton thanked Valley bus riders for their patience during "this very difficult process."

"I know that they [the bus drivers] are chompin' at the bit to get right back to the people that they love, the customers that they love," Stanton continued, echoing the drivers' hope that bus service would be back to normal by Friday.

"We are hopeful about the union membership's vote tomorrow, and pending that outcome, we look forward to restoring service in Phoenix and getting the Valley back on the road by Friday morning," Veolia said in a prepared statement late Wednesday morning.

The handshake agreement and the contract proposal that was being written Wednesday applies only to the Phoenix bus drivers. A contract still has to be put together for the Tempe drivers. That was expected to happen in relatively short order.

The Light Rail has not been affected by the strike and is running normally, but Valley Metro has been advising its 200,000 daily bus riders to make alternate arrangements for transportation whenever possible.

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.