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Talks stall between LTD, bus drivers.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Efforts by the Lane Transit District and its unionized bus drivers to negotiate a new contract appear to have hit a major bump in the road.

After a seventh bargaining session on Friday, LTD officials said they are ready to move to mediation, while a lead negotiator for the Amalgamated Transit Union said he's unable to return to the bargaining table until mid-October.

Both sides earlier expressed hopes that a new three-year contract could be reached quickly, avoiding a repeat of the contentious bargaining in 2005 that resulted in a one-week strike - the first and only strike by transit workers in the history of the state.

A strike won't happen this time, thanks to a new law promoted by the ATU and passed by the state Legislature earlier this year. The law took away public bus drivers' right to strike but allows them to seek binding arbitration in the event of an impasse.

Ron Heintzman, an international vice president and lead bargainer with the ATU, on Tuesday rejected suggestions that the union is eager to test the new law in its bargaining with LTD.

"We believe the best way to reach a contract is at the bargaining table," he said. "There's no reason we'd want to stall."

Walt Boynton, an LTD bus driver and union local president, said talks broke down Friday after the union presented a final offer and said it wasn't interested in a counteroffer. District officials instead proposed moving directly to mediation.

"We are both at our bottom lines," he said. "We are not that far away - but we're miles apart."

LTD spokesman Andy Vobora said the district is willing to hold mediation sessions immediately, even on weekends, and remains hopeful of avoiding arbitration. The district proposed that the parties hire a private mediator, rather than a state mediator, to help speed the process along, he said.

Under state law, parties aren't supposed to declare an impasse until 150 days after the start of bargaining - or about mid-September in the case of LTD and the ATU. Heintzman and Boynton said the union is not interested in pursuing mediation until after those 150 days expire - in part to consider whether to unleash a public information campaign that could include informational picketing.

"We want time to be able to do that," Boynton said. "We are not ready to rush into mediation."

When the 150-day deadline arrives in mid-September, Heintzman said, he will be attending the international union's annual conference in Las Vegas, and unavailable to return to the bargaining table until October. He said he is involved in about 25 contract talks on behalf of transit unions stretching from Oregon to Texas.

With mediation, the parties have at least 45 days to reach a settlement before turning to arbitration. Under the applicable state law, an arbitrator would have to select either LTD's or the union's final contract proposal, rather than incorporate elements from both.

In a newsletter to employees, LTD said it has offered a number of contract enhancements, including wage increases every six months, and proposed no union concessions.

Heintzman said some of LTD's proposed enhancements are inadequate. For example, he said LTD has proposed annual wage increases that are less than the roughly 3 1/2 percent that workers at other transit districts in Oregon are averaging.

Vobora did not disclose LTD's wage offer, but said it's an improvement over the 3 percent received under the previous contract, which expired June 30.

Boynton said union workers in past years have received 4 percent annual wage hikes. He said wages and pension benefits are the major sticking points. Pension benefits have been frozen in recent years, "and we think it's time for LTD to catch us up. They're not willing to do that, and that's what we're fighting over."

At this juncture, LTD and union officials even disagree on whether they agreed to avoid discussing bargaining particulars with the media; LTD contends that the parties agreed to such a blackout, while the union does not.

The union represents 244 of LTD's 323 employees, including maintenance workers and customer service representatives.
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Title Annotation:Transportation; Mediation and binding arbitration could be future stops in the negotiations
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 22, 2007
Words:687
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