Bus drivers' strike continues in East Valley

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PHOENIX (AP) -- A bus strike that has idled service in suburbs east of Phoenix entered its third day Saturday, leaving tens of thousands of riders without transportation.

Negotiations between the bus drivers and the national bus company they work for ended Friday evening without any agreement. Talks could resume Saturday.

Some 40 routes in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe were shut down when the work stoppage began Thursday. Express routes from those cities to Scottsdale and Phoenix were also affected.

The routes serve some 57,000 riders daily, including many workers without cars who can't walk miles to work in the summertime heat.

Union officials said they were frustrated that talks ended Friday.

"Since they left without a discussion of coming back to the table, or any discussion at all for that matter, our members and the riding public will be left in limbo and I cannot live with that," union negotiator Michael Cornelius said in an email.

Officials with First Transit said the union ended negotiations after insisting on a one-year contract.

"All of the discussions thus far have hinged upon a three-year contract, which would guarantee the riding public long-term stability," said Maurice Harris, a First Transit spokesman. "Given the history of this union ... we sincerely believe that it would be against the community's best interest to face a potential strike scenario every 12 months."

Both sides have indicated they are committed to resolving the labor dispute.

Negotiators for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 and First Transit met for a few hours Thursday and held talks again for much of the day Friday.

First Transit took over operations July 1 after winning a three-year contract from the Valley Metropolitan Regional Transit Authority with options for seven additional years in January. The region's single light rail line from north-central Phoenix to Mesa was operating normally, as was bus service in Phoenix and western suburbs.

The new contract combined operations in Mesa and Tempe that serve the eastern Phoenix suburbs and involved savings of $36 million over the previous contract by operating both parts of the system together and streamlining operations. Union officials said it cut $77 million over 10 years.

Drivers on the picket line in front of the Tempe bus yard have said job security has been their biggest issue with First Transit since the new transit contract would override First Transit's proposed deal with the union.

First Transit said it has also offered higher wages and lower health care costs.

In March 2012, a strike crippled bus service in metropolitan Phoenix for six days before it was settled.

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