By Mark Davis
on Thu, Mar 13, 2014 at 10:44 AM
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file: Oliver Parini
Thursday 6:40 p.m. UPDATE
In the latest salvo in their increasingly bitter contract battle, Chittenden County Transportation Authority drivers have rejected pleas issued by both CCTA and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to settle their differences in arbitration.
A day after voting 54-0 to reject CCTA's latest contract offer, drivers brushed aside a request from CCTA to have a neutral arbitrator decide the matter. Weinberger, in his most decisive move to date in the labor feud, had also urged drivers to go to arbitration.
“We rejected binding arbitration for the same reasons we rejected management’s last proposal," bus drivers' union spokesman Rob Slingerland said. "Management and their lawyer don’t have to live under the terms of their proposed contract. We do. Agreeing to binding arbitration does not move us closer to having safer working conditions, safer conditions for passengers and other drivers, or livable jobs. Those are our core demands and what is necessary to reach a settlement.”
Drivers say they plan to strike on Monday, shutting down nearly all CCTA bus routes.
CCTA officials could not be immediately reached for comment. Contrary to Slingerland's assertion, the agency had said earlier in the day that an arbitrator's finding would be legally binding on both sides.
"I am encouraged by the prospect that the parties may engage in binding arbitration," Weinberger said in a statement earlier in the day. "This process is one the City of Burlington has used on occasion and is generally seen as a fair and substantive process for resolving contract disputes. For the good of the thousands of people who rely on CCTA service, I urge acceptance of this binding arbitration proposal or for the parties to identify and agree to some other viable option to resolve this dispute, thereby avoiding a damaging interruption of bus service."
Original Post, filed Thursday morning and updated mid-afternoon:
Chittenden County Transportation Authority drivers unanimously rejected management's latest contract offer and said they plan to shut down the bus network next week with a strike.
Drivers voted 54-0 Wednesday night against CCTA's latest offer, which was made over the weekend and forestalled a scheduled Monday strike. On Thursday afternoon, the drivers vowed to walk off the job Monday.
"Drivers are calling for a fair contract that treats drivers with respect, avoids increasing driver fatigue and creates livable jobs," union spokesman Rob Slingerland said in a statement. "We are living in a world with more and more part-time jobs. People can't make ends meet with part-time labor. The drivers can't live under the terms of management's last proposal. That's why it was voted down in such a big way."
In response to the vote, CCTA asked the union to go to arbitration, where both parties would be obligated to accept the legally binding recommendation of a neutral evaluator.
“We’re disappointed the union has voted to strike. Disrupting service would impose an extraordinary burden on many Vermonters,” said Bill Watterson, CCTA General Manager. “Our most recent offer – which included generous pay increases and flexibility in work rules – was exceedingly fair, reasonable and respectful. CCTA is hopeful the Union will reconsider its decision to strike and agree to binding arbitration.”
“CCTA always wants to do what’s right for its customers and the communities that rely on us and, in this case, that means finding the best way to get the Union back to the negotiation process and reaching an agreement with our drivers," Watterson continued.
The union has not responded to that request. In the event of a strike, CCTA, which gives nearly 10,000 rides a day throughout Central Vermont, would be all but shut down. It would offer limited service only on its LINK service to Montpelier and Hinesburg. (Those lines are operated jointly by union and non-union drivers. The runs driven by non-union drivers would still be available.)
Drivers remain upset by what they say is a hostile work environment, long workdays and what they believe is a plan by CCTA to hire more part-time drivers and reduce the security of full-time jobs.
Drivers often work long split shifts, working the morning and evening commutes with time off in the afternoon. CCTA officials say that is an unavoidable part of the public transportation industry, adding that the split shifts allow them to retain more full-time drivers.
"To provide service when it is most needed by the public, CCTA focuses on peak commuting periods with more buses during busy commuting hours," CCTA said after the union rejected its latest offer. "These early morning and late afternoon peaks in service make split driver work shifts a necessity. In addition, because there are two separate peaks in service that cannot always be combined into an 8-hour work assignment, use of part-time drivers is an effective means of meeting peak period staffing challenges. This moderate approach proposed by CCTA is commonplace in public transportation operations."
In the contract the union rejected Wednesday, CCTA says it offered drivers a two percent annual raise and lump sum payments of up to $1,000 to compensate for the lack of raises while negotiations have been at an impasse. Drivers have been operating without a contract since their old pact expired in the summer. More than 10 negotiating sessions have failed to yield an agreement.
Drivers plan to continue to rally the public to their cause, which has also attracted support from other unions, including ones representing school teachers, University of Vermont professors and Fletcher Allen Healthcare employees.
Drivers are planning a picket and rally on Church Street Friday evening, passing out lawn signs to supporters, and urging residents to call CCTA officials to demand a better deal. Burlington High School students this week generated a petition with more than 500 signatures supporting the drivers.