Strike to idle buses; Mediation fails to bridge impasse.
WORCESTER - People who use Worcester Regional Transit Authority buses will have to make other arrangements after today.
Following a breakdown in contract negotiations yesterday, both Amalgamated Transit Union Local 22 and RTA Transit Services Inc., which operates WRTA buses, said there will be a strike that will halt the buses beginning tomorrow.
A federal mediator working on Veterans Day was unable to close the gap during a two-hour session in Boston. Yesterday marked the 17th meeting or mediation session between the two sides. There is no telling how long the strike will last, as no more meetings between labor and management are scheduled.
People who have used the buses for an average of 11,000 to 12,000 trips a day in Worcester and 10 nearby communities will have to find alternate transportation while the sides decide who will blink first over how much employees should pay for health insurance coverage.
With both sides declaring that a strike is unavoidable, the union held a membership meeting last night to plan for the work stoppage.
"It's a shame," said John F. Carney, RTA Transit general manager. "This is the first year we've broken the 3 million trips (annual level) going back to 2004."
A 66-day strike in 2004 cut into the ridership of the struggling transit authority long after it was over.
This year, the company declared an impasse Nov. 5 and told the union it would impose contract conditions beginning tomorrow. The union said it would strike if that happens, and yesterday made a counterproposal.
Christopher W. Bruce, Local 22 business agent, said the union asked for a three-year contract that would increase its share of health insurance premiums from the current 13 percent to 20 percent by the end of the contract. The union also sought wage increases totaling 9.5 percent: 2 percent retroactive to July 1; 1 percent on Jan. 1; 3 percent, July 1; and 3.5 percent July 1, 2012.
Mr. Carney said no agreement is possible because Local 22 refused to agree to a 25 percent employee share of health insurance premiums and a one-year contract. He said the company is unable to offer more than a year's contract because it does not know what money will be available beyond that.
The company has not attempted to bring in replacement bus drivers in previous strikes. "We would never think about that this early," Mr. Carney said. "It's a lot more difficult than people might think."
The strike will not affect vans transporting elderly people through councils on aging outside of Worcester, Mr. Carney said. But there will be "somewhat" of an effect on disabled people using demand response service in Worcester, he said.
An average of 354 pre-qualified disabled people use demand response service daily in Worcester. Between 40 and 100 of those need Paratrasit Brokerage Service lift-equipped vans that will be out of service during the strike.
The remainder use contracted services such as taxicabs, which will remain in service during the strike, Mr. Carney said. "For those who need a lift, we will do the best we can to meet all of the demand using other vendors" so passengers do not miss medical appointments, he said, "but it can't be 100 percent."
Mr. Bruce accused management, and not the union, of engineering the strike through its refusal yesterday to make a counterproposal to the union's willingness to move from its position. Local 22 offered to increase member health insurance premium payments by more than 50 percent after hearing that the company would respond if the union was more flexible, he said.
"We want to keep working" even under the terms of the current contract, with which the union is not happy, he said.
But Mr. Carney said last week that the company was imposing its offer because it was a good one: a one-year contract with a 1 percent wage increase, a 1 percent signing bonus and a one-time $1.2 million company contribution to the under-funded pension plan. In return, union members would pay 25 percent of their health insurance premiums; and 9.5 percent of their pension, a 1 percent increase over the current payment.
Local 22 has about 132 active bus drivers, mechanics and support personnel at RTA Transit and about 100 retirees.
CUTLINE: A Local 22 union membership meeting was held last night at the American Legion Hall on Mill Street. Mary Ann Beaudoin, a WRTA van dispatcher for 18 years, arrives for the meeting.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/JIM COLLINS