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Senate OKs bill to avert transit strikes.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

One way or the other, it appears that the Lane Transit District and its union-represented workers will avoid a repeat of the strike that idled buses for a week in 2005.

That's because the state Senate late Wednesday approved House Bill 2537, which would take away public bus drivers' right to strike but allow them to seek binding arbitration in the event of an impasse. The bill, previously approved by the House, now awaits the governor's signature.

It's unknown what impact the impending law could have on negotiations between the transit district and the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose bargaining teams will meet today for the fourth time since early May.

The parties have indicated in the past that they would like to reach a settlement on a new three-year contract before the current one expires at the end of the month. Another bargaining session, if needed, is slated for June 18.

If bargaining spills into July or beyond, the new law could apply, said Roger Martin, executive director of the Oregon Transit Association, which opposed the bill. The LTD Board did not take a formal position on the bill.

The bill sailed through Salem, passing 27-2 in the Senate and 53-5 in the House. The legislation adds public transit employees to the list of public safety workers - such as police, firefighters, 911 operators, prison guards and most parole and probation officers - who are not allowed to strike or honor a picket line.

The bill, promoted by the ATU, takes away the balanced leverage provided by the threat of a strike, Martin said.

"A strike is recognized by both parties to be detrimental to the public, which causes them to work hard to get a settlement," Martin said. "But binding arbitration is done behind the scenes, invisible to the public."

Martin noted that in 40 years, only once have union workers at a transit district gone on strike - at LTD in 2005. He predicted that, as a result of the new law, bargaining between transit districts and unions will go to binding arbitration "almost every time."

Many LTD union workers initially were ambivalent about giving up their right to strike, "but once it was explained to them that this could be a better bargaining tool, more of them came on board," said Walt Boynton, an LTD bus driver and local union president.

ATU officers in Portland were unavailable for comment Thursday.

The statewide union represents 244 of LTD's 323 workers, including bus drivers, maintenance workers and customer service representatives.

Transit and union officials at LTD have declined to say how bargaining is faring or identify the most important issues on the table. Health insurance was the biggest obstacle to securing a new contract in 2005, and some union members have said that their retirement pension plan could be a central issue this time.

"We continue to move forward with the idea of working together and settling this outside those other processes" such as arbitration, transit spokesman Andy Vobora said. "We're just continuing with our meetings with the hopes of getting it done."
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Title Annotation:Transportation; The new law could apply to LTD and its union if talks extend into July or beyond
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 8, 2007
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