Negotiations resumed this weekend between the Orange County Transportation Authority and the union representing its maintenance workers, offering continued hope for an end to the strike that has shut down all bus service in the county.
Meanwhile, bus service will resume Monday and Tuesday as Teamsters leaders lifted the picket lines for those days so commuters can get to the polls on Election Day. If there is no agreement by Wednesday the union likely will hit the picket lines again, once again halting bus service.
Eric Jimenez, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 952, told City News Service on Sunday that the two sides talked Saturday and Sunday. Jimenez said the union was pulling pickets down at 4 p.m., but they may go back in a day or two, and characterized talks as going “pretty slow.”
Transit agency officials said service would resume Monday, but passengers were advised to expect some delays.
“We hope that there will be no further disruption in service and that we can work this out without affecting the people that count on OC Bus to get to work, school and other important destinations,” said OCTA Chairman Mark Murphy, who is also the mayor of Orange.
Both sides seemed stalemated on Friday before agreeing to return to the negotiating table over the weekend.
“We’re willing to continue the discussions,” OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said. “We think the offer on the table is really competitive in the market. In the market we’re in for Southern California, we’re only below LA Metro, which is a significantly larger transit system.
“And ultimately, none of these issues can be worked out unless we’re at the bargaining table. The union chose to strike, ending negotiations. If we’re going to resolve this, it has to be done in negotiations.”
The union called the walkout Wednesday — setting up picket lines at the agency’s Santa Ana and Garden Grove yards — and Thursday was the first day bus commuters were left to look for alternate means of getting to and from work, doctor visits and other appointments.
OCTA had alerted commuters to check the agency’s website at octa.net for any updates — but despite the warnings, people unaware of the disruption were still seen Thursday morning at various bus stops, waiting for buses that weren’t coming.
Orange County Board Chairman Doug Chaffee, who also serves on the OCTA board, said Thursday it doesn’t appear Gov. Gavin Newsom will step in anytime soon.
“The governor’s been called, but he’s declined to invoke the power he has to temporarily stop the strike,” Chaffee said. “The strike may last a while, but I hope not.”
Chaffee said he believes health care is “the hang-up” in the negotiations. Jimenez agreed.
“If we accept the contract the way it is now, we’ll see the price of health care” increase,” Jimenez said. “With inflation going up and living in Orange County and yet they’re asking our members to pay more out-of-pocket for health care. That’s the main issue.”
OCTA claims it can offer health care benefits for a lot less money than the Teamsters. The Teamsters Labor Alliance Trust Fund costs $350 monthly for every plan, but the bus drivers, who are also represented by the same union, receive health care through the transportation agency and they pay $38.05 for single coverage, $108.18 for two-party coverage and $220.52 for family coverage.
OCTA claims that 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 (OCTA’s plans) didn’t save the money they thought it would save and had inferior benefits from what they get now, they withdrew their proposal,” Jimenez said.
“If their health care plan wasn’t better — if it was such a good deal, they’d have kept it on the table and kept fighting for it. … It looks cheaper, but once you get into the nuts and bolts of the plans, including the benefits of doctor co-pays and deductibles, they are a lot more than what our plan is.”
Jimenez acknowledged the agency’s bus drivers are covered by OCTA’s plans, but he said that was negotiated prior to his leading the union.
“Believe it or not, we get an earful from our bus drivers all the time because they used to be on the same plan as the mechanics,” Jimenez said. “The mechanics don’t want to because our benefits are a lot better benefits.”
A major sticking point in negotiations has been OCTA’s contribution to health care insurance, Jimenez said.
Jimenez said the union is reticent to agree to a short-term deal or extension so a longer-term bargain can be struck. The union did negotiate extensions with some employers during the pandemic, he added.
Zlotnik responded, “We have no desire to drag on negotiations and we want to see this resolved as soon as possible. The only people getting hurt are OCTA employees and the public that has no other way to travel. There are 150 maintenance workers and that’s forcing more than a thousand other OCTA employees to be on strike, and they are also not getting paid. It’s disappointing for our employees and it’s terrible that the public doesn’t have a transportation system they can rely on.”
The union’s 150 machinists, mechanics and service technicians provide a variety of services from gassing up buses to making repairs.
“We cannot safely operate our buses without our maintenance employees,” Zlotnik said.
A strike that was previously planned for Oct. 17 was called off when Newsom asked both sides to continue negotiations but the talks fizzled this week when Teamsters Local 952 claimed OCTA negotiators walked away from the bargaining table on Monday.
According to OCTA, the agency offered a 14.25% salary increase over three years, which includes an immediate 5% pay hike, another 4.75% increase on Oct. 1 of next year and an additional 4.5% raise on Oct. 1 of 2024.
Union officials countered that the pay raise was not retroactive to the date when the last contract expired and did not take into account the current consumer price index.
The offer also includes a 16% hike in health care contributions over the same period, in addition to chipping in 26.4% 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 Pension Fund.
Teamsters leaders say the maintenance workers have not had a pension increase in more than a decade.
The top wage for mechanics would be $43.19 per hour, or $90,000 annually, which doesn’t include health care and pension contributions, according to the OCTA.
OCTA officials argued that because the maintenance employees are in the union’s trust for their health insurance benefits, the cost of the plan and design of it is up to the Teamsters.Bus drivers, who are under the agency’s health care plan, pay about $120 per month for health care, and OCTA has offered to provide health care options to lower the monthly cost for the mechanics, according to the agency.