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Phoenix bus service hit by driver union strike

A few dozen bus drivers and family members, including Fernando Rodriguez, left, who has a father that is a bus driver, and George Vargas, who is a bus driver, walk in front of a Phoenix bus depot, as they join more than 600 Phoenix area transit bus drivers who were on strike March 10 in Phoenix.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Bus riders in Phoenix were forced to wait for hours Saturday because of a driver’s strike that caused nearly 80 percent of the scheduled routes to be cancelled.

About 600 Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 drivers went on strike just after midnight, after talks with Veolia Transportation Services broke down. The two sides have been working for nearly two years to reach a contract, but they could not agree on wage and benefit terms such as sick-leave accrual, retirement benefits and health care coverage.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton called on the union and Veolia to immediately return to the bargaining table.

“I’m calling on both sides to get together today, tomorrow, every day, 24-7 until this thing gets resolved,” he said at a press conference. “Providing 100 percent bus service to the people of the city is too important.”

Both sides said in separate statements that they were willing to return to negotiating.

The striking Veolia drivers operate 31 of the 46 routes in Phoenix, and they were joined later Saturday by more than 300 drivers with 19 routes in Tempe. Other routes in the metropolitan area run by the combined Valley Metro operation aren’t affected, although the disruptions rippled into cities including Glendale.

The city cancelled some routes, and ran curtailed service on many others. Transit officials warned riders to make backup plans for next week in case the strike continues.

Drivers at the city bus yard in south Phoenix said wages weren’t really the issue – it was work rules, sick time takeaways and general working conditions. Veolia got a new contract to run the Phoenix operation about two years ago and workers have been without a union contract since.

“They have done everything in the power to diminish this union,” said Walter Goodman, who was picketing at the bus yard.

Veolia officials said they were “shocked and disappointed” that the union called a strike and inconvenienced riders. Spokeswoman Valerie Michael said Veolia was flying in workers to provide the minimum service required under its contract with Phoenix.

The company said it offered raises over five years and a strong health care package, among other benefits. They also said 97 percent of the drivers now earn the maximum pay rate of $22.53 per hour.

“We believe that our proposal, on top of these existing wage levels is very fair and reasonable, particularly in these economic times, when city employees and others have taken wage cuts,” she wrote.

Union secretary-treasurer Michael Cornelius said the dispute is about the company wiping out six months of accrued sick time that drivers were promised they could cash out upon retirement, and its unwillingness to make a legitimate offer.

The latest proposal contained language that said it was contingent on Phoenix giving the company money, and would be void if the city didn’t agree, Cornelius said. That made it impossible for the union to even consider it, since a third party would have to agree to modify a different contract.

“They’re trying to put the city in a position where they have no choice but to give Veolia a change to their contract or the strike continues,” Cornelius said.

Goodman, the driver, said he felt bad for riders.

“To the ridership, we have to say we have bent over backwards for the last two years to preserve your ability to ride the Phoenix transit system,” Goodman said. “A lot of drivers, myself included, are really very sorry that this had to come to this sorry state.”

Riders were dismayed, and many aimed their ire at the drivers.

“They’re interfering with my way to get to work, so I have no sympathy for ‘em at all, I really don’t,” said Alan Baker, who was waiting at a stop east of the state Capitol. “I don’t think anybody should. If they don’t like what they do, they should go into another line of work.”

Cornelius disagreed. “We’ve been thinking about them for 20 months, that’s almost two full years we have gone without a contract, because we were honoring a commitment to the riders,” he said.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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