Veolia Transportation officials and representatives of the three local transit unions continue to negotiate labor contracts and have managed to avoid a bus strike in Phoenix.
But more than two-dozen union workers who drive, fuel, clean, and repair Phoenix city buses protested, with bright-colored signs in hand, this morning in front of the Hyatt Place in Tempe, where they discovered that Veolia execs already are stashing replacement workers in anticipation of a possible bus strike.
Billy Wingfield, a Veolia operation manager from Boise, Idaho, arrived in Tempe just last night.
"We're not here to replace them. We're here to help out, to do whatever is necessary to service the customer," Wingfield told New Times while he stood outside of the Hyatt Place, watching the transit workers march up and down the sidewalk. Other out-of-town workers watched from the hotel's balcony.
"I think this is just part of the process. The company has to prepare for the worst -- but hope for the best," Wingfield said.
Union reps aren't happy because, in the midst of "good faith" negotiations, Veolia executives placed ads in the Arizona Republic seeking temporary bus drivers and have flown in about 200 replacement drivers and supervisors, like Wingfield, from all over the country.
Veolia officials said in a statement they are "committed to resolving the remaining issues with its unions," but have to be prepared in case an agreement is not reached. They said it was "a preventative measure only, focused on avoiding a total lack of transit service in the event of a work stoppage by the unions."
Labor contracts expired on June 30, but the Teamsters (employees who fuel and clean buses) and Operating Engineers (mechanics) agreed to extend their existing contracts until August 15. The Amalgamated Transit Union (bus drivers) extended its contract through September 30.
A joint statement released by all three labor unions stated that they all "plan to continue bargaining and have no plans to strike in the near future. If there is a strike, it is due to the bad faith bargaining on behalf of Veolia."
"We're out here because of the passengers, our customers" said Sebastian Aldama, a 20-year Veolia employee and ATU member. "A majority of the people who use our buses are people in need. They depend on us. We want the public to know we're not interested in a strike. We're interested in continuing negotiations."
Workers are concerned because, while they have granted Veolia two contract extensions, Veolia has not yet decided whether it will grant an extension now requested by the Teamsters, says Jerry Ienuso, a Teamsters negotiator.
And if one unions strikes, they are all expected to walk. Talks with the Teamsters are expected to resume on Saturday.
Union officials might have some cause for concern, especially since Veolia officials were able to sucker Phoenix into waiving a $50,000-a-day fine that their company otherwise would have been required to pay if workers went on strike.
It's not a typo. Written into the five-year city-bus contract that started on July 1 was a steep $25,000-a-day fine for each bus facility (and Veolia operates two in Phoenix) that the company had to pay Phoenix to make up for the reduced levels of bus service.
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Why would Phoenix give Veolia a pass on those sanctions meant to be an incentive for the company to avoid a strike and maintain bus service at full capacity?
Well, when Phoenix refused to ante up the money that Veolia wanted for expenses linked their old city-bus contract, company officials told the city that they would walk away from the new contract. Giving Veolia a pass on strike-related fines during initial negotiations was one of several concessions that Phoenix had to make in order to get the new contract signed.
Bob Bean, president of the ATU, predicts that Veolia is going to hand the Teamsters a final "take it or leave it" offer and not grant the extension. He believes that Veolia would rather have workers go on strike now and wait them out -- when it won't cost them potentially millions in fines -- instead of down the road when fines are back in place and workers have some leverage.