Last fall, 50 brave Valley Metro bus drivers gave up their stable jobs to take a chance on light rail.
Many had been with the bus system for more than a decade. But the for-profit company that Metro Light Rail hired to manage the new rail system, Alternate Concepts Inc. (ACI), gave them a hard sell. With light rail, ACI said, drivers would enjoy shorter shifts, weekends off, a four-day workweek.
There would also be stability. Under federal labor laws, the new rail operators would be represented by the same union they dealt with as bus drivers.
"They told us, 'We're going to abide by basically the same contract,'" recalls one bus driver turned operator.
That was then.
Today, seven months later, there's still no union contract. That may not sound like a big deal — in Arizona, union protection is relatively rare. But for the drivers, not having it has led to a host of problems.
And we're not talking about working weekends. We're talking chaos. Everything from vacation time to health insurance is in a state of flux, drivers say.
More significant are their safety concerns. Operators are being asked to work serious overtime; they worry about falling asleep at the wheel. They're being asked to drive faster, too.
And most horrifying, they say, ACI has no policy in place for handling bodily fluids. Especially now that the city of Phoenix has sliced its budget for fare enforcement, transients are getting on the trains — some without shirts, others without shoes.
Passengers are peeing on the train.
And bleeding on the train.
And, in at least one instance, defecating on the train.
In other cities across the country, there are systems in place to pull a contaminated train off the tracks. But in Phoenix, trains just keep going.
"You get urine, you get regurgitation, and you'd think a supervisor would at least show up and stand by warning people until it's cleaned up," one driver says. That hasn't happened. "People just walk through it and track it all over the train."
The light-rail operators I spoke with were willing to talk only if granted strict anonymity. (After all, they don't have union protection.) They didn't want me sharing their level of experience, their city of residence, even their gender.
These people aren't whiners. They've been bus drivers for years — and that's not an easy job.
But they say driving a bus is a cakewalk compared to light rail. For that they blame both ACI and their lack of a union contract.
Under Veolia, the French company that manages the Valley's bus system, they had the security of knowing the rules. "You knew what to expect if you did something wrong," one operator says. "You knew the consequences."
But with ACI, a contract has been little more than a promise. Union officials tell me they thought they had an agreement; the two sides shook hands on a tentative contract December 15, two weeks before the light-rail line was due to open. The line opened on time — saving the city and Metro Light Rail from a public relations embarrassment.
After the handshake, however, ACI walked away. Rail operators have been without union protection ever since.
Hillary Foose, a spokeswoman for Metro Light Rail, tells me that until a new contract is inked, the old bus contract applies. But if that's the case, somebody should tell the operators. That's certainly news to them.
Foose says Metro is happy with ACI's work. But she admits that her agency might not be up to speed on the operators' full gamut of complaints. "The issues you've raised have not been brought to Metro's attention," she said in an e-mail. "Metro operational leadership makes themselves available to operators and would encourage their feedback. We recognize that this system would not run as well nor as safe without the experts that we have 'behind the wheel.'"
I wonder just how open ACI has been with Metro brass. Indeed, when I talked to ACI's general manager, Ron McKay, he seemed to be in complete denial about his company's role in this mess. McKay actually told me that it wasn't ACI who walked away from negotiations — it was the union, he says.
But that just doesn't make sense, for one reason. In February, the local Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 filed a charge against ACI with the National Labor Relations Board in February. The feds responded to that complaint by telling ACI that it must honor the December 15 agreement.
"We signed off on the contract last week because the labor board told us we had to, under threat of penalty," McKay confirms. In light of that, it hardly sounds as though the union is to blame for the agreement being put on hold.
And though McKay praises the rail operators — "they're the best group of operators I've ever worked with," he tells me — the feeling is not mutual. Indeed, in these four months of contract limbo, operators have grown frustrated.
They don't know which mistakes ACI considers deserving of just a reprimand and which ones might lead to termination. They don't know the rules governing sick time. Their health insurance plan has changed twice already in their six months as rail operators. When I asked to see their employee manual, the drivers I spoke with simply laughed at me. They received a manual explaining how to drive the train, they say, but nothing that covers the nuts-and-bolts, human resources-type of stuff you'd expect in a normal workplace: sick time, vacation . . .
And then there's the safety issue.
For one thing, the drivers say, federal regulations for bus drivers limited shifts to 15 hours. After that, they say, a driver was required to take at least nine hours off.
Not so on the trains, they say.
One operator told me that 16-hour shifts are relatively common. (ACI denies it, saying long shifts would be possible only if operators are accepting overtime work, which is optional.) Another said that operators have been asked to take on 12-hour shifts, then sleep in their cars for just two or three hours before reporting back to duty for more work.
Do operators have the right to refuse a shift if they're too sleepy to operate the vehicle? ACI says yes; operators I spoke to aren't so certain.
"Who knows if you can be terminated for saying no?" one operator asked. "On the bus side, if you said no, it was no . . . Here, they don't relieve you."
The shifts can be grueling.
Originally, the route from Mesa to northwest Phoenix was supposed to take just 58 minutes. But with trains sharing the road with cars, bikes, and even strollers — not to mention the Valley's incredibly slow-moving pedestrians — that proved impossible. The route time swelled to 70 minutes.
But Metro Light Rail recently decreed that drivers must get it down to 67 minutes.
Drivers are supposed to adhere to speed limits, but cheating is the best way to make up crucial minutes, along with forgoing all but the most necessary bathroom breaks at the end of the line.
"You're given 15 seconds to load new passengers on at a station," one driver told me. "Well, people just pile on and you're supposed to pick them all up — but you'll have to answer at the end why you're late when they don't climb on fast enough."
Problems of timing, however, pale in comparison with some of the crap operators have to deal with.
I mean that literally. Alas.
On the buses, the drivers tell me, there are strict policies for biohazards. If someone bleeds on the bus, or vomits, or urinates, that bus is almost immediately taken out of service.
Naturally, you can't just do that with a train. There are tracks, after all. You can't switch trains in the middle of, say, Central and Camelback.
But the problem, operators say, is there's no policy for handling these all-too-common issues. Because of the way drivers' seats are situated, they typically won't even see a bodily fluid problem until passengers bring it to their attention.
At that point, they're supposed to radio it in, but ACI has no system in place for what to do next. Operators haven't even been given yellow "caution" tape to rope off the offending area — despite begging the company to provide it. Nor have they been given signs to notify passengers of a contaminated car. Typically, operators say, passengers have kept piling right into the contaminated area before a cleaning crew shows up.
And even when a gross-out car reaches the end of the line, they say, it isn't automatically switched out for one of the spares waiting there.
Several operators regaled me with the story of a middle-aged drunk man who defecated all over himself while snoozing in a rail car.
The car was kept online for another two trips to and from Mesa, they say — even as passengers complained bitterly about the smell.
"There's vomit and feces, and they don't care that it's hazardous," one operator told me. "They tell you, 'You just keep going.'"
ACI tells me it's in the process of issuing operators yellow tape. Why, I pressed, has it taken four months to get to this point?
"It wasn't an issue until now," says Ron McKay, ACI's general manager. "There's only been a complaint recently."
It's nice to know the company is now being responsive. But, really, is anyone shocked to learn that shit happens?
The Boston-based company "managing" the operators here got the gig by submitting a low bid. ACI's five-year, $27 million proposal was a whopping $3 million below Metro Light Rail's expectations.
ACI is new to Phoenix and new to local politics. Founded by executives at Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority 19 years ago, ACI runs the light-rail line in Puerto Rico. McKay, its general manager, helped open the one in Houston four years ago. Surprisingly, the company has only the most barebones Internet presence and hasn't earned much in the way of press, for good or bad.
I suspect that ACI didn't realize just how difficult managing our rail line would be. A memo obtained through a public-records request shows that Metro Light Rail is about to give the company another $150,000 to hire more drivers and thereby reduce overtime; union officials are convinced more cash is on the way. It's the classic low-bid strategy: Win the job by promising a low fee, then make up the difference in "contract amendments" when no one is watching.
The problem is, plenty of people are watching. The rail operators say they feel betrayed by ACI. And the union officers are angry to the point of apoplexy. Bob Bean, president of the union's local chapter, calls one ACI executive "the biggest compulsive liar I have ever met in my life" — and urges me to print it.
"Everything that this company has done has been nothing but a bait and switch," he says angrily.
I started talking to the union last summer, seven months before light rail opened. At that point, union members were concerned because contract negotiations had stalled and ACI was making no attempt to return to the table.
Under federal transit rules, the trains literally could not start running without the union being involved. That may sound surprising to people accustomed to Arizona's "right to work" policies, but as I learned, federal law is in play here. In any city starting a new rail line, the union representing city bus drivers has first dibs on representing rail workers.
Thanks in part to my column, ACI finally seemed to realize the drill: It had no choice but to deal with the Amalgamated Transit Union. The union tells me that, at that point, everyone worked hard to hammer out a tentative agreement.
After the two parties shook on the deal, the Boston guys were supposed to send the Phoenix union a copy of the agreement to present to their membership. "We'd thought everything was fine, that we'd have to schedule a vote and that was it," recalls Jim McCubbin, the union's vice president.
But ACI suddenly balked. It told the union that it didn't actually have a tentative agreement — never mind that handshake in December.
On February 26, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging bad-faith bargaining. The feds gave ACI a deadline of April 15 to acknowledge the tentative agreement.
When I visited the union offices on April 16, the place buzzed with excitement: ACI had promised to send over a copy of the agreement within the hour.
Naturally, the copy never showed up.
McKay, of ACI, says the contract is now in the union's hands. If that's really the case, I have no doubt the union is going to move quickly.
Indeed, as the operators explained to me, driving buses wasn't glamorous, and it wasn't always safe. But driving the bus was a good job, a dependable job, a job where they knew what to expect and how they'd be treated.
Not so with rail. Not under ACI.
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"This is 100 percent more stressful than the bus," says one longtime operator. "And there's no rhyme or reason to anything with this job. I don't know what the rules are. The rules are whatever they make up that day."
"We didn't want anything more than what we had at the bus," says another. "We were strongly led to believe we'd get better conditions. That wasn't true. We only want what we used to have."
It's been four long months, but I'm hopeful that ACI finally gets it. Now if they could just get cracking on that "caution" tape . . .