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Talks with O.C. bus drivers go to the wire

A strike by 1,100 workers would shut down nearly 60% of the county's bus service.

July 07, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County transit authorities and leaders of the bus drivers union were locked in last-minute negotiations Friday on a three-year contract before a potential midnight strike.

Orange County buses serve roughly 225,000 riders per weekday.

Transit workers have not walked off the job in Orange County since 1986.

A strike would shut down nearly 60% of the county's buses. The only lines that would remain in operation are those a private transit firm operates under county contract, including the ACCESS routes for the disabled, feeder routes to the Metrolink shuttle and the OC Express buses to and from the Inland Empire.

The county's heaviest-traveled route, the 43 line from Fullerton to Costa Mesa along Harbor Boulevard, will run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will be staffed by supervisors.

Art Leahy, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said the agency had offered a 30-day contract extension to the drivers in the hope they would continue negotiating rather than strike.

Officials on both sides said they have come close to agreement on the total amount of the raises drivers would receive, but remain apart on how the raises would be divided and how any potential excess pension funds would be allocated.

The contract covering the county's 1,100 drivers expired in April, and they were initially set to strike in early May.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requested a court-ordered injunction requiring a 60-day cooling off period. That order expired at midnight Friday.

A key issue is which union members would receive the most benefits from the deal. Labor leaders want to concentrate the raises among more senior drivers, to reward them for their service. The OCTA, saying it needs to improve its recruiting in Orange County's tight labor market, wants to spread the raises evenly, awarding a greater portion of the proceeds to those lower on the seniority scale.

Under the current contract, drivers' hourly wage is $13.72 to $21.42. OCTA has offered a 13% increase over the term of the agreement, but drivers are seeking 14%, saying wages under the previous deal failed to keep pace with inflation.

Patrick D. Kelly, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 952, said the union got short-changed during the last contract because OCTA relied on a cost-of-living projection from Chapman University that underestimated the figure by 1.4%, he said.

"We got our own financial person this time to do an analysis," Kelly said. "It shows the value of our compensation package was eroding with each year of the contract."

A bus riders advocacy group, the Transit Advocates of Orange County, has established an on-line message board where riders can post requests for rideshares in the event of a strike.

The web site address is: http://members6.boardhost.com/OCAngels/.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.

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