The San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (SLORTA) and its drivers’ labor union, Teamsters Local 381, met with a federal mediator on Oct. 7 to reach a satisfactory agreement and avoid a potential strike. The agreement is said to still not reflect the wants and needs of the drivers.

Ed King, the executive director of the SLORTA, said the meeting was productive and would lead to an agreement from the drivers.

“Based upon our discussion on Oct. 7, we are confident that the outcome of the vote will be positive and (we) look forward to presenting this agreement to the RTA board for their approval at our Nov. 4 meeting,” King said.

Lynn Swenson, the secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local 381, did agree that the union recommended the offer, it was not a satisfactory one and was done to avoid a strike. Swenson said it was a choice between the “lesser of two evils.”

“There’s some issues that weren’t totally resolved, but the union committee felt that to accept this was better than to have a strike,” Swenson said.  “Now, again will the employees be happy with it? Probably not, but they may accept our recommendation.”

Swenson said problems began when the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) moved from private ownership to county ownership, causing staffing policies to change. This included RTA desiring to count seniority of drivers up until the county took ownership and, instead of paying medical insurance premiums in full, forcing the employees to pay a part of them.

Wages also were an issue to the employees. Swenson said having drivers pay for their insurance was an added insult. These issues are at the heart of the year-long negotiations between employees and the RTA and it has reached an impasse.

Swenson said the RTA improved on its wage offer; however, the offer was “basically (rearranging) the money” by taking money away from the more highly paid drivers and transferring it to the lesser paid drivers.

Other pressing issues still remain untouched.

“Medical insurance where they (are) still seeking the employees to pay a fair amount was not changed,” Swenson said.  “And also a seniority issue with vacation (time) was not changed.  And those were pretty high priority items.”

Larry Bray, an RTA bus driver and employee committee member, said the employees were disappointed by RTA’s offer.

The three main issues for the drivers are: recognition of seniority, wages and benefits.

Yet Bray said seniority was the biggest issue for the drivers. As a result of the change in ownership, RTA wanted the driver’s seniority to be counted up to when RTA took ownership, even though many drivers have worked for many years.

“That hurts a lot of people when you say … you have to start from scratch again,” Bray said. “We have drivers who’ve been driving for them for 12 or 13 years, and it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow to have somebody say, ‘Yeah, we’ll just throw those 13 years away. It doesn’t mean anything. We’ll start from scratch now.’”

Bray also said the RTA should offer the drivers what they had budgeted to pay them.

“When a company up there says (we have) a wage scale that goes up to $15.50 an hour; they’re paying their top drivers who’ve been with them for 13 to 14 years $14.35, you know they’ve got a lot of flexibility to go ahead and pay that $15.50 an hour,” Bray said.  “It’s already there, it’s already in the budget.  It’s there to be used for the drivers to give them a reasonable wage, and when the state national average right now is $19.”

According to Payscale.com, the national average wage for bus transit drivers is between $11.22 and $19.24 an hour.  Swenson said the drivers and union were being reasonable in their demands.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” Swenson said. “We’re really asking for something we feel is economically feasible for RTA, certainly in line with the difficult economic times right now.”

Bray said because of the lackluster offer, the employees may reject it and strike.

“Well, I’m really not sure, but my gut feeling tells me that … the majority will vote no, and we will probably be looking at some hard times these next couple weeks,” Bray said.  “But I think it’s going to be very close.”

The strike may lead to a disarming of the RTA and provide an inconvenience for county bus riders.

Swenson said this depends on how effective the strike is.  In order for bus services to stop, replacement RTA workers would have to agree to not work and the community would also not apply to take the jobs.

“Even though the employees may walk out, we have to make sure that the strike is effective, that we are stopping the buses from rolling,” Swenson said.

Swenson and Bray said it was the community that would suffer if the strike was effective.

“With an issue like this, there’s a direct impact on the community,” Swenson said. “And the ones who bear the burden are the people who would like to see the drivers paid more.”

Tom O’Malley, the president of the RTA board of directors, said it is RTA’s mission to provide for the community, especially the students — not to make them suffer.

“I can say that as a Cuesta College alumnus (and) student body president, UCSB and Cal Poly alumnus, I know how important transportation is to students and others in need of transportation options,” O’Malley said. “Supporting our students in our county has always been a priority of the RTA board and staff.”

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