OCTA strike talks continue; Election picket canceled – Orange County Register

Negotiations between the Orange County Transportation Authority and the union representing its maintenance workers resumed this weekend, offering lingering hope for an end to the strike that has shut down all bus service in the county.

Meanwhile, bus services will resume on Monday and Tuesday as Teamster leaders have lifted pickets for those days to allow commuters to get to the polls on Election Day. If there is no agreement by Wednesday, the union is likely to attack pickets again and halt bus services again.

Teamsters Local 952 secretary and treasurer Eric Jimenez told the City News Service on Sunday that the two sides spoke on Saturday and Sunday. Jimenez said the union was picketing at 4 p.m. but they could go back in a day or two, calling the talks “pretty slow.”

Transit agency officials said service would resume on Monday, but passengers have been advised to expect some delays.

“We hope there will be no further service disruptions and that we can work this out without impacting the people who rely on OC Bus to get to work, school and other important destinations,” OCTA said -Chairman Mark Murphy, who is also the Mayor of Orange.

Both sides appeared deadlocked on Friday before agreeing to return to the negotiating table over the weekend.

“We are ready to continue the talks,” said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik. “We believe that the offer on the table is really competitive in the market. In the Southern California market, we are second only to LA Metro, a much larger mass transit system.

“And ultimately, none of these issues can be resolved unless we are at the negotiating table. The union decided to go on strike and ended negotiations. If we want to solve that, it has to be done through negotiations.”

The union called the strike on Wednesday — setting up pickets at the agency’s Santa Ana and Garden Grove shipyards — and Thursday marked the first day that bus commuters had to look for alternative routes to and from work, to doctor visits and other appointments.

OCTA had advised commuters to check the agency’s website at octa.net for updates – but despite the warnings, people were still seen at various bus stops on Thursday morning, unaware of the disruption, waiting for buses that weren’t coming.

Orange County chief executive Doug Chaffee, who also serves on the OCTA board, said Thursday it doesn’t look like Gov. Gavin Newsom is stepping in anytime soon.

“The governor was called but has declined to use his powers to temporarily halt the strike,” Chaffee said. “The strike may go on for a while, but I hope not.”

Chaffee said he believes health care is “the problem” in the negotiations.

Jimenez agreed.

“If we accept the treaty as it is now, we will see healthcare costs go up,” Jimenez said. “Inflation is rising and we live in Orange County and yet they are asking our members to pay more out of pocket for healthcare. That is the main problem.”

OCTA claims it can offer healthcare services for a lot less money than the Teamsters. The Teamsters Labor Alliance Trust Fund costs $350 a month for each plan, but the bus drivers, also represented by the same union, receive healthcare through the transportation agency and pay $38.05 for individual insurance, $108.18 for two-party insurance and $220.52 for family protection.

OCTA claims that the annual savings for each plan would be $3,743.40, $2,901.84, and $1,553.82, respectively.

Jimenez said the OCTA plans offer “inferior benefits.”

When union negotiators “pointed out that (OCTA’s plans) did not save the money they thought would save and got less benefit from what they are getting now, they withdrew their proposal.” said Jimenez.

“If their health plan wasn’t better – if it was such a good deal they would have kept it on the table and kept fighting for it. … It looks cheaper, but once you get the basics of the plans down, including the benefits of doctor co-payments and deductibles, they’re a lot more than what our plan is.

Jimenez acknowledged that the agency’s bus drivers are covered by OCTA’s plans, but said it was negotiated before he led the union.

“Believe it or not, we constantly get an ear from our bus drivers because they used to have the same plan as the mechanics,” Jimenez said.

A major sticking point in the negotiations was OCTA’s contribution to health insurance, Jimenez said.

Jimenez said the union is reluctant to agree to a short-term settlement or extension so that a longer-term agreement can be reached. The union has negotiated extensions with some employers during the pandemic, he added.

Zlotnik replied: “We have no desire to prolong negotiations and we want this to be resolved as soon as possible. The only people injured are OCTA employees and the public, who have no other way of getting around. There are 150 maintenance workers and this is forcing more than a thousand other OCTA workers to strike and they are not being paid either. It’s disappointing for our staff and it’s awful that the public doesn’t have a transportation system to rely on.”

The union’s 150 machinists, mechanics and service technicians provide a variety of services from fueling buses to making repairs.

“Without our maintenance workers, we cannot operate our buses safely,” said Zlotnik.

A strike previously planned for Oct. 17 was cut short when Newsom urged both sides to resume negotiations, but talks stalled this week when Teamsters Local 952 claimed OCTA negotiators walked away from the negotiating table on Monday.

According to OCTA, the agency was offering a 14.25% raise over three years, which would include an immediate 5% raise, an additional 4.75% raise on October 1 next year, and an additional 4.5% raise on October 1 October 2024 included.

Union officials countered that the pay rise was not retroactive to the end of the last contract and did not take into account the current consumer price index.

The offer also includes a 16 percent increase in health insurance premiums over the same period, 26.4 percent of salary to the Orange County Employees Retirement System, and $1.30 per hour worked — up to 2,080 hours — to the Western Conference of Teamsters Retirement Fund.

Teamster executives say maintenance workers haven’t received a pension increase in more than a decade.

According to OCTA, the top wage for mechanics is $43.19 an hour, or $90,000 a year, which doesn’t include health care and pension contributions.

OCTA officials argued that the cost of the plan and its design would be left to the Teamsters because the maintenance workers were in the union’s reliance on their health insurance benefits.

Bus drivers covered by the agency’s health care plan pay about $120 a month for health care, and OCTA has offered to offer health care options to reduce the mechanics’ monthly costs, the agency said.

https://www.ocregister.com/2022/11/06/talks-resume-on-octa-strike-picket-lines-canceled-for-election/ OCTA strike talks continue; Election picket canceled – Orange County Register

Dais Johnston

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