Metro Light Rail Operators Don't Have a Contract — Just Grueling Schedules and Smelly Passengers

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske