Are FRTA drivers headed for strike?
FRTA bus at John W Olver Transit Center in Greenfield. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz
Tina Cote Administrator for the FRTA speaks on senioe transportation issues during a meeting of the council on Aging at the Senior Center in Greenfield
In this Jan. 23, 2013 photo Jefferson Elementary third graders Qwalynde Cain, left, and Sata Lumpkins work on a reading assignment during class in Wichita, Kan. Kansas is one of an increasing number of states that are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of third grade. Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. (AP Photo/Mike Hutmacher)
GREENFIELD — Contract negotiations with Franklin Regional Transit Authority bus drivers are expected to end late tonight, and on Tuesday union leaders were not ruling out a strike.
Omar El-Malah, the union representative assisting drivers, mechanics and dispatchers with their negotiations, said a strike, as well as a couple of other options, which he did not want to discuss on Tuesday, is possible.
This past weekend, FRTA bus drivers and others “rallied for respect” on the Town Common. They asked passersby to hold FRTA Administrator Tina Cote accountable, so that there will be no service interruptions later this week, after they take their vote on the new contract.
El-Malah said those workers have agreed to extend their contract three times since last July and don’t plan to vote any more extensions.
According to El-Malah, the rally was held because FRTA’s management company, Franklin Transit Management, has proposed “meager wage increases, while demanding concessions on overtime and vacation accrual.”
FRTA drivers, dispatchers and mechanics are members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 274.
“We’ll know what they are going to do by late Wednesday night, when they take their vote,” said El-Malah.
Franklin Transit Management, which works under the umbrella of First Transit Management, is the transit management company hired by FRTA to negotiate contracts, hire drivers, mechanics and dispatchers, and to oversee and supervise those employees.
According to Massachusetts law, transit authorities must hire outside management companies to hire, oversee and supervise all drivers, mechanics and dispatchers.
El-Malah said he believes FTM is merely acting as a proxy for FRTA.
“The FRTA administrator (Cote) cannot negotiate these contracts by law, but in reality, all of the decisions are being made by her,” said El-Malah. “I believe she is setting the bargaining priorities.”
He said 15 people will be affected by the outcome of the current contract negotiations.
“The main issue is wages,” said El-Malah. “The employees are looking for an increase of 1.5 percent for Fiscal 2012, a 3 percent increase for Fiscal 2013, and a 4 percent increase for half of next year. They want a living wage.”
Cote said Tuesday that she believes FTM has “come very close” to those demands.
El-Malah said FRTA drivers are making $6.40 less an hour than Pioneer Valley Transit Authority drivers, and he said the gap will increase if FRTA drivers don’t receive what they are asking for.
Cote said the FRTA is a rural transit authority and is funded differently than urbanized transit authorities, like PVTA, so it is an unfair comparison.
“If this administration had the motivation, it could secure funding for the requested increases,” said El-Malah. “They got it for the new building and other things they’ve wanted.
El-Malah said an increase of as little as $21,000 in next year’s budget, or as much as $40,000, would satisfy workers’ requests.
“(Cote) cares about buildings, machines, and policies, not the people,” said El-Malah. “The administration isn’t focused on human needs.”
El-Malah is talking about two different types of funding, though. Capital funding, which comes from the state government, federal government, or both, can typically be used only for a building project or equipment.
For instance, $15 million for the new regional transit center building had to be used for construction. It could not be used for FRTA salaries.
It is not clear at this point how much drivers, mechanics and dispatchers are making an hour.
FRTA administrators posted information on Facebook on Monday. The post started, “The FRTA would like to pose some information regarding the UE Transit Workers demand for a living wage increase for the employees at our management company Franklin Transit Management.”
The post continues by saying that the FRTA’s Fiscal 2013 budget is $6,209,350, which includes $471,850 in administrative salaries and benefits and $1,175,000 in salaries and benefits for drivers, dispatchers and mechanics.
The FRTA pays 85 percent of employees’ health insurance, leaving employees to pay 15 percent.
The Town of Greenfield, for example, pays an 80-20 split for its employees’ health insurance.
The post also says that administrative salaries and wages increased from last year by $105,275, because three additional employees were hired.
According to Cote, the three additional employees are a full-time facility manager, a part-time janitor, and a full-time office person.
Currently, Cote, her assistant administrator, and the new office person are the administrative staff. She said there are three people in the FRTA Call Center running the MassHealth Program, which transports Medicaid clients, and part of the Demand Response Service, but those three people’s salaries are paid by the state.
“If we lost that funding, we’d lose those employees,” she said.
Cote said salaries and wages for drivers, dispatchers and mechanics increased this year from last by $86,734, and there were no new hires.
On Tuesday, Cote said she hopes drivers don’t decide to strike today, because she doesn’t want to see FRTA customers affected.
“I have every confidence this will work out,” said Cote.
She said the FRTA is currently struggling with a shortfall in its Fiscal 2013 budget. She said the FRTA budgeted $358,000 more than it received from state and federal funding this year.
“That happens,” she said. “It’s always difficult to plan. Like this year, we set our budget in July, but sometimes we don’t hear about how much we were getting until now.”
Cote said she doesn’t believe the shortfall will mean a reduction in services, layoffs or increased fares, but it will mean that the FRTA will have to tighten its belt for the remainder of the year and may not be able to do any more trainings this year.
“We’re also hoping that we collect more in our fare boxes,” she said.
The FRTA posted on Facebook that it hopes UE members will get a better understanding of how its projects are funded, how its budgets work, and why it is not able to directly participate in union negotiations.
“It is not the administrator driving the negotiations and refusing to come to an agreement,” according to the Facebook post. “The administrator reports to an (unpaid) 40-member board, which oversees financial and other decisions as it relates to the FRTA.”
Lance Fritz, vice-chairman of that 40-member board said Tuesday that he was not apprised of the negotiation situation, when asked by the reporter about negotiations.
“So, I have no comment,” said Fritz.
Pat Allen, the board member who represents Montague, said she has no idea what is going on in contract negotiations.
“We meet as a board three times a year,” said Allen. “At our last meeting, the union folks read us a statement, but I have no detailed information on contract negotiations.”