C-Tran, employee group head to arbitration

Negotiations with bus operators have stalled

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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With labor negotiations long at an impasse, C-Tran and its largest employee group are headed toward third-party arbitration for the first time.

C-Tran and its bus operators, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, have been working on a new contract since before the most recent agreement expired in August 2010. But more than a year of negotiation and mediation has produced no solution. The move toward arbitration essentially means that a neutral third party will find one for them.

The standstill holds up a negotiation process that typically “sets the tone” for C-Tran’s other employee groups, said C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson. In addition to its operators, the agency’s clerical, paratransit dispatcher and machinist groups are all working under expired labor contracts. More than 80 percent of C-Tran’s nearly 400 employees are union-represented, with operators making up the largest portion of those workers.

Specific details on the biggest sticking points between C-Tran and its operators are unclear. But a June letter from Public Employment Relations Commission mediator Karyl Elinski cited wages, step pay increases and work assignments among the reasons for beginning “interest arbitration.”

The two sides are set for a hearing in January, Patterson said. A decision ending the dispute could come later in 2012.

Attempts to reach ATU representatives for comment were unsuccessful.

Patterson said C-Tran has gone to the negotiating table with recent staff cutbacks in mind.

“The approach that the agency has taken is that there would be some parity between the non-represented workforce and the represented workforce,” Patterson said.

All non-represented C-Tran employees took pay freezes in 2010 and 2011, according to C-Tran. Union-represented workers continued to receive regular step pay increases as required, but haven’t had cost-of-living adjustments since 2009 or 2010. Represented fixed route drivers earn anywhere from $18.08 to $23.79 per hour, or about $37,600 to $49,500 annually based on a 40-hour work week.

C-Tran leaders and operators held several negotiating sessions between June and September 2010, Patterson said. Mediation began last November, he said, with Elinski’s letter calling for arbitration arriving in June.

Patterson acknowledged that salaries and wages have figured prominently in discussions so far, as is common in labor disputes. A still-struggling economy invariably plays a part in the process as well, he said.

“You are in a situation where public agencies all over the place are having to adjust and make reductions and make concessions,” Patterson said.

C-Tran remains in negotiations with its three other employee groups. But those discussions revolve around many of the same issues, and their outcomes will likely depend on what happens with the operators’ dispute, Patterson said. Still, he said, the goal remains the same.

“We want to reach an agreement,” Patterson said. “That’s what we set out to do every time.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; www.twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.