9/30/07

Union stages mock funeral as bargaining tactic

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1704 bus drivers and Omnitrans management appear to be moving farther apart in their efforts to resolve a contract dispute that could culminate in a strike next month. The two sides exchanged barbs Friday in separate events designed to gain public support for their respective positions.

Omnitrans bus drivers plan to strike on Oct. 12 after eight months of failed negotiations. Management officials will meet with union representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday in an attempt to work out a deal.

Omnitrans officials held a morning news conference Friday to clarify what they called "myths" put out by the bus drivers' union.

They were especially angry at a union protest that took place in the afternoon that featured a mock funeral procession to symbolize the death of the workers' faith in Omnitrans' management. "I don't think that a mock funeral procession, a stunt, demonstrates that they are interested in negotiating in good faith next week," said Omnitrans marketing director Wendy Williams. "The stunt does nothing to advance negotiations and only serves to degrade relations. You don't see Omnitrans management pulling stunts."

Penny Lilburn, vice chairwoman of the Omnitrans board of directors, said the union rejected a "very fair and reasonable offer" that would cost taxpayers $65 million over the next three years.

"We have an obligation to make sure the agency is run efficiently," said Lilburn, also a Highland City Councilwoman. "We've given everything we can give."

The transit agency has offered its 445 bus drivers a 9 percent wage increase or 3 percent annually for three years.

The Omnitrans proposal would pay a starting hourly wage of $14.28, which is higher than what bus drivers receive in Orange County, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Williams said.

Omnitrans has made at least 16 contract concessions during 29 negotiation sessions since January, Williams said.

The previous contract expired March 31. The union voted 229-113 to reject the contract offer in August.

Besides the wage increase, drivers would see larger paychecks because they would save on their monthly out-of-pocket health insurance premiums, Williams said.

The contract offer also establishes for the first time an account for health benefits for retirees.

Three hours after the news conference, the bus drivers' union presented a starkly different perspective.

About 100 bus drivers wearing red shirts and carrying picket signs marched from the parking lot of Nunez Park across Fifth Street to the entrance of the Omnitrans headquarters.

The procession was led by four workers holding up faux headstones followed by six people carrying a wooden coffin.

Patricio Guillen, a Roman Catholic priest who runs a nonprofit group that helps Latino immigrants, performed a mock eulogy to mourn the failure of the two sides to overcome their differences. Guillen also called on management to make a better offer.

But union leaders remained skeptical.

"We have no faith that they'll ever be able to offer us a fair contract," said Dale Moore, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1704. "We have no faith that they'll do what's right."

Moore said the agency's health benefit package fails to meet the needs of workers and their families.

Moore added that management's offer is inadequate because it does not make pay increases retroactive. Instead, the agency has offered a one-time payment of $175.

The two sides are only 1 percent apart on wages. The union wants 10 percent over three years compared to management's offer of 9 percent.

The union also is seeking a contract that would include paid arbitrators to address grievances.

Billy Roy, who has worked as an Omnitrans bus driver for six years, said it was a difficult decision to support a strike.

"It's going to be a hardship on everybody," said Roy, who is married with four children. "But we believe this is the right thing to do."

Omnitrans serves about 50,000 riders a day throughout the San Bernardino Valley.

Not all bus drivers agree with a strike.

Mike Donato, a 16-year Omnitrans driver, said management has put a fair offer on the table.

"Quite a few operators feel it was a good offer," Donato said. "You can't get everything at once."

While Omnitrans is hopeful a strike can be averted, the agency is preparing contingency plans that will keep more than half of all bus routes operational on a limited schedule.

Williams said Omnitrans will use properly licensed supervisors and support personnel to provide as much service as possible if there is a strike.

Omnitrans will not charge fares of its riders during a strike, she said.

Riders should expect delays because of overloading, Williams said.

A strike will not affect Omnitrans' Access curb-to-curb service for disabled riders. Omnilink minibus service in Yucaipa and Chino Hills also will not change, because it is operated by a private contractor.

(sbsun.com)

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