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Putting the Brakes On

Labor dispute might cause bus strike

By Kevin Osborne · February 8th, 2011 · News

If you're one of the nearly 60,000 people who ride Greater Cincinnati's Metro bus system every day to get to school, go to work, buy groceries or for some other purpose, you might soon have to make other travel plans.

The board that oversees Metro voted Feb. 1 to reject a state fact-finder's recommendations about a labor contract with its workers, and the union says it might go on strike.

Trustees for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) voted 11-1 to reject the recommendations, calling them too expensive and vague. The agency's contract with its 676 bus drivers, maintenance and support employees expired a day earlier, although that agreement remains in effect until a new deal is reached.

The SORTA board will meet in executive session Feb. 9, the day this issue is published, presumably to craft a final offer for the union. Under labor laws, the agency can impose a “final and best offer”; in turn, the union may give a 10-day notice to strike.

Metro provides about 19 million passenger trips annually, or about 57,000 to 60,000 trips daily. Also, the agency has a contract with Cincinnati Public Schools, and provides about 7,000 trips for the district each day.

A fact-finder with the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) made several recommendations related to a proposed three-year labor contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627. They included wage increases of 2 percent annually, totaling nearly $5 million during the three-year contract's duration.

That was a compromise between the union's and SORTA's positions.

The union had sought 4 percent raises annually, while SORTA wanted no raises in the contract's first two years, and a 2 percent raise in the third year.

Also, SORTA said the fact-finder didn't offer enough clarification about a dispute over its health-insurance plan and how much employees should pay.

The union had sought no changes in its coverage; SORTA offered three different options for employees. Under one option, the employee's share of the total premium would increase 2 percent during each year of the contract. Also, the agency offered a different plan and a PPO-style plan.

“Over the past four months, Local 627 spent a significant amount of time negotiating in good faith with SORTA in an effort to reach a new collective bargaining agreement,” said Mark Bennett, the union's president, in a prepared statement. “However, during bargaining and prior to the expiration of our contract, SORTA unilaterally and unlawfully changed our members' health insurance coverage.”

As a result, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against SORTA with the state. In turn, SERB assigned a fact-finder to mediate the dispute, in an effort to avoid litigation. SORTA refused to participate in the mediation process, so a hearing was held so both sides could make its case.

“Importantly, the neutral fact-finder closely reviewed and analyzed SORTA's finances and determined that SORTA, despite its claims to the union, was financially healthy,” Bennett said. “Furthermore, the fact-finder determined that the transit system should not be financed on the backs of our members by imposing cuts to employee benefits and salaries.”

SORTA representatives reply that the lack of clarification on the health-insurance plan could prove too costly. If the highest-cost interpretation of the health-insurance provision was used, the agency's cost would exceed $2.6 million in 2011 and increase to $6.3 million in 2013, a spokeswoman said.

In actuality, the fact-finder didn't make a strict determination about SORTA's financial health, as the union claimed. But it also provided some clarity about how to proceed with the health coverage, unlike what SORTA officials had claimed.

“The Authority's premiums have increased by 27 percent and the employees should not be expected to absorb the entire amount,” the fact-finder's report stated. “(An employee) stated the Authority saved 27.08 percent of their cost when the Authority changed insurance coverage.

“I recommend the employee will pay a percentage of their base hourly wage rate (based upon 2080 hours)," the report continued. "Pay 2 percent of base hourly rate in 2011 and 2012 with an increase to 2.5 percent of their base hourly rate in 2013. As to the opt-out amounts, they are to be $350 per month for single and $550 per month for family.”

The union is keeping all options available for how to handle the impasse.

“In view of SORTA's blatant unfair labor practices, if the need arises, Local 627 is prepared to engage in job action to protect its members' legal rights,” Bennett said. “While we sincerely hope that such action will be unnecessary, until SORTA agrees to comply with law, there may be no other alternative.”


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