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Talks go on; so does strike

A 25-hour bargaining session between transit officials and the union fails to produce results.

July 11, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County transit officials and the union representing bus drivers broke from a marathon 25-hour negotiating session late Tuesday with no agreement to end a strike that has crippled bus service in Orange County since Saturday.

The talks began at 1 p.m. Monday and continued through the night and into Tuesday afternoon. Talks are to resume today.

The strike has inconvenienced more than 225,000 Orange County residents, many poor, without cars, and for whom public transit is a lifeline to work, school, medical appointments and other destinations. Some have resorted to a hodge-podge of shared rides or unlicensed taxis to get to work; others have gotten up earlier to bike or walk to work. Half of Orange County's bus passengers earn less than $20,000 a year, and nearly three-quarters don't own a car.

Officials said they were hopeful the strike would end in "the next few days" but could not be more specific.

"We've made some progress," said Art Leahy, the chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, at a news conference Tuesday. But "we don't have an agreement."

Patrick D. Kelly, the union's secretary-treasurer said OCTA representatives waited 12 hours before responding to a proposal the union put on the table at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. He declined to release details about the offer or say how it was viewed, but said the transit company's negotiators eventually walked out.

Carolyn Cavecche, OCTA chairwoman, indicated that the deal was still stalled by a disagreement between the agency and the union over how much of the raises should be allocated to workers with less seniority.

"Our transit system in Orange County has been crippled," she said. "We know how hard this is for the thousands of people who depend on us."

The two sides are fairly close on the amount for raises overall. But the union, which represents Orange County's 1,200 bus drivers, wants to put most of the raises into salaries of the most senior drivers, while the OCTA wants to distribute the money evenly to improve the salaries of lowest-paid drivers and enhance the authority's ability to recruit.

"This board wants to make sure 100% of our employees are compensated fairly," Cavecche said.

Kelly said drivers were fighting for an agreement to help them manage Orange County's high cost of living. With the most senior drivers earning between $45,000 and $60,000 per year, he said many still qualify for housing assistance in a county where the median home price is $635,000.

Union officials have said they want to award the biggest raises to the most senior members because those members have sacrificed for lower-tier workers in the past. They also say the OCTA could do other things to improve its recruiting and retention of new hires, such as fixing a split-shift system that requires newer drivers to take long unpaid breaks in the middle of their work day.

Kelly said that half of the 150 new drivers recruited by the OCTA each year quit within their first year, and half of those who remain quit by their second year. Leahy acknowledged Tuesday that the agency has struggled to retain employees with fewer than three years on the job.

Since the strike began Saturday, supervisors have been operating Orange County's most heavily traveled bus route, the No. 43 line along Harbor Boulevard from Fullerton to Costa Mesa. Officials announced they would add service along two more high-volume routes beginning Monday: the No. 57, from Newport Beach to Fullerton, and the No. 60, from Seal Beach to Tustin.

Buses will run every 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and rides are free.

The transit officials also said they were in the process of hiring and training 15 new drivers, and expected them to be ready to drive in three weeks.

The new hires, they said, would be full-time permanent employees and presumably would become union members, though it was not clear how they would be expected to drive buses if their coworkers are still on strike.

Cavecche said the agency was also canceling its Orange County Fair Flyer service to the Orange County Fair this year, but may restore if a deal is struck in time. The fair opens this Friday.

christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

Staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

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