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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CCTA: Board May Consider Outside Avenues to End Strike, Including Temporary Drivers

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 1:56 PM

click to enlarge CCTA drivers on a Church Street picket line last week. The strike is now in its ninth day, with no agreement in sight. - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • CCTA drivers on a Church Street picket line last week. The strike is now in its ninth day, with no agreement in sight.
The board governing the Chittenden County Transportation Authority plans to hold a special meeting in coming days to consider dramatic steps aimed at ending the bus drivers' strike, including potentially filing actions with Vermont Superior Court or the Vermont Labor Relations Board.

The board may also consider allowing the agency to hire short-term replacements for the strikers so that the buses can  once again roll, CCTA General Manager Bill Watterson said in an interview this morning. Before the strike, the agency was providing 10,000 rides a day to commuters who include students, workers and people traveling to medical and social service appointments. 

"It's too early to say what kind of options the board would give preference to, but you have identified a couple of approaches," Watterson said in an interview with Seven Days. He stressed that the board has not yet set a meeting date and its members would be the ones to make a final choice. "I'm not authorized to unilaterally take those steps. There's a chance it may come to a resolution by the time they schedule a meeting. (But) the responsible thing for them to do is assess what the potential ways forward are. It's what we need to do."

Watterson stressed that the agency has given only preliminary thought to any of those measures, which outside experts said would be unprecedented in recent Vermont history, and declined to discuss them in detail. CCTA remains focused on reaching an agreement on a new drivers' contract at the bargaining table, he said.  

Watterson said he saw three paths to a deal. The union could bring CCTA's latest contract offer — which union representatives rejected on Saturday — to a vote of their 71-driver membership. They could accept CCTA's offer to resolve their differences in binding arbitration, a step that Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has urged but drivers have rejected. Or the drivers can come forward with a new offer.

"The challenge is, it's the drivers' choice, and based on their public comments they're not interested in taking one of these paths," said Watterson, who has been at the helm of CCTA for two years. "Perhaps they need time to reflect that there are options. CCTA is focused on trying to find a way so we can resolve the remaining differences."

Watterson's comments came a day after drivers held a press conference on Church Street pinning blame for the failure to reach an agreement over the weekend on management "stonewalling."

Standing on a picket line outside CCTA's offices yesterday, drivers' union steward Mike Walker said leaders in the Teamsters affiliate are mulling their next move, but have no current plans to take any of Watterson's recommended steps.

"As far as I know, they got our final offer last time," Walker said. The strike is in its ninth day.

Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles has told Seven Days that his agency, which provides CCTA with roughly $6 million of its $13.5 million budget, would consider breaking its contract with CCTA and finding alternative transportation providers in the county if the administration and drivers fail to reach an agreement.

In response to questions from Seven Days, Gov. Peter Shumlin's office provided the following statement: "The Governor is very concerned about the on-going impact of the strike on families and the many Vermonters who rely upon public transit in our largest county for getting to work, school, doctor's appointments, and more. He has been in touch with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, as well as the state Agency of Transportation. He wants to see this strike end and urges the parties to come together to get that done as soon as possible. Gov. Shumlin continues to watch this situation closely and to look for ways to help move this to resolution."

In the interview, Watterson also elaborated on CCTA's views of the failed negotiation session on Saturday. While drivers have publicly maintained they are concerned about working conditions and shifts, and not compensation, Watterson said union negotiators refused to agree to a provision that called for them to receive two percent annual raises in the coming years. They wanted 3.5 percent hikes, he said.

“We didn’t reach an agreement on that," Watterson said. "That leaves open that this is about money. That suggests to me it is about wages.”

And, while drivers have asserted that they are focused on issues of driver fatigue and passenger safety, Watterson stressed that drivers had previously signed off on increasing the spread time — the time between the beginning of a driver's morning route and the end of his or her evening route — from 12.5 hours to 13.5 hours. (The drivers work a split shift, taking time off between the morning and afternoon commuter rushes.) Drivers now say they will not accept an increase to 13.5 hours.

“Why would they make that offer if they were concerned about driver fatigue?” Watterson said. “Is this more about negotiating tactics than driver fatigue?”

Walker said that drivers only offered 13.5 hours as a compromise, and that CCTA failed to meet them halfway during their many negotiations. The agency, Walker said, is trying to alter drivers' schedule in an effort to bring in more part-time drivers and weaken the union.

"This 13.5 hour spread time is a bunch of baloney," Walker said. "It's working now with 12.5 hours. Negotiation is a give and take. We've been giving. Enough is enough. They need to take our proposal."

With drivers picketing on the nearby sidewalk, the parking lot of CCTA's Industrial Parkway headquarters has been barricaded and is being manned by a private security guard who demands identification of all visitors, including a reporter arriving for an interview.

"This is the kind of respect we get — treated like criminals," Walker said.

Watterson said the security measures were standard for a strike environment. There have been no security problems at the building, Watterson said.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the drivers have begun circulating a petition calling for Watterson and other CCTA leaders to be replaced.

"A contract is a contract. Even after we have a contract, working under the same management and methods of thinking, things are never going to change," Walker said. "Until they change, it's going to continue to be abusive management, bullying, threatening, predatory management, micromanagement."

Not all CCTA employees are on strike. The 17-person maintenance staff, which, like the drivers, is represented by a  Teamsters unit, is working under a contract that expires in June. Maintenance workers been spending their days catching up on backlog projects, Watterson said.

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