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Bus Drivers Drive Home Their Contract Requests to OCTA

September 02, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of county bus drivers rallied Wednesday outside Orange County Transportation Authority headquarters to draw attention to contract negotiations that have dragged on since March.

Throughout the day, off-duty coach operators and representatives from the bus drivers union, Teamsters Local 952, lined the sidewalks in front of the OCTA building in Orange.

Demonstrators carried signs that read "Union Yes" and "Cost of Living Adjustment for the 91 Toll Road, but Not for Drivers," a reference to recent toll increases for the Riverside Freeway toll lanes operated by OCTA.

"We want a contract that is fair and equitable for drivers," said Andrew Smith, a Teamsters shop steward who has been an OCTA coach operator for nine years. "Just show us some respect and dignity."

Contract negotiations for OCTA's 1,227 full- and part-time bus drivers have been underway since mid-March. In July, union members voted to authorize a strike if discussions broke down.

Wednesday's rally was not a strike or work slowdown, so county bus service proceeded as usual. OCTA buses handle about 60,000 passengers a day.

Arthur T. Leahy, the authority's chief executive, declined to comment on the pending contract offers, except to say the agency's final contract offer would be fair to drivers and taxpayers.

"We want OCTA be a good place to work and have a career," said Leahy, who met with demonstrators Wednesday afternoon. "We understand that the cost of living is climbing, and we will be reasonable about that. But what we settle on has to satisfy taxpayers, who expect us to be diligent stewards of their money."

Teamsters officials say the authority is offering 3% annual increases in pay and benefits over the three-year contract. The top hourly wage is now $20.02.

Drivers say they want hikes approaching 3.8% a year to match increases in the cost of living in Southern California. They also want the authority to address some of their concerns about working conditions.

Among other things, operators contend that OCTA's citizen complaint process is weighted unfairly in favor of bus riders and that some route schedules are so tight that drivers have little time to eat or use the restroom without falling behind schedule.

Union members have submitted a petition to the OCTA board of directors that attacked the citizen complaint system as "unjust, unfair and unreasonable." More than 900 drivers signed it.

Patrick D. Kelly, the secretary-treasurer of Local 952, said he was "guardedly optimistic" about reaching a contract settlement without a strike. To meet union demands, he estimated that OCTA needed to commit about $2 million over the three-year contract period.

"We are not a long way apart, but we are apart," Kelly said. "We need to see more to reach the cost-of-living mark for our drivers. OCTA just needs to sharpen its pencils. They have the money."

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