Veolia Execs Shouldn't Be Surprised By Bus Drivers' Strike; Feds Found Merit to Union Claims that Veolia Reps Bargaining in Bad-Faith

For nearly two years, Veolia executives have sat across the table from union representatives for Phoenix bus drivers in an attempt to hammer out an employment contract for workers.

No deals have been reached, and finally, union officials called for a strike on Friday night.

Tempe bus drivers -- who are also Veolia employees represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union -- joined the strike because they have also not reached a contract agreement with the French-based transit company.

Veolia reps say that are surprised by the strike.

Surprised? After two years of failed negotiations?

Hard to imagine how the strike comes as a surprise given feds findings of "merit" to claims by union officials that Veolia has been negotiating in bad faith, doing things like going back on contract items that have already been agreed upon and undermining union talks by dealing directly with employees.

But, most people won't look beyond the bus drivers walking a picket line and buses parked in the garage instead of picking up passengers. And that's what the transit giant is counting on.

At last check, Phoenix buses were only operating at 20 percent. The $388-million contract that Veolia was awarded in Phoenix specifies that the transit company had to keep service levels at least at 60 percent.

If the previous Phoenix administration, that is, former Mayor Phil Gordon, hadn't caved to Veolia and changed the terms of the city-bus contract, the transit company might today have more incentive to end that strike.

Here are some facts that may get overlooked as Valley bus passengers are scrambling to find alternatives ways to get to and from work or school.

Under the original contract, Veolia had to pay Phoenix $50,000 a day for each day that workers were on strike. Phoenix would have an extra $150,000 right now, but that provision was waived when Veolia threatened to walk away from Phoenix in 2010 -- just weeks before the new bus contract was supposed to go into effect.

Losing Veolia would have effectively left Phoenix scrambling to find another service provider. Instead, Phoenix settled, changed the original contract terms and handed Veolia nearly $30 million to settle the previous city-bus contract.

Veolia executives are doing it again -- not with threats of walking away from its contract, but with the ongoing strike.

At issue this time is Veolia's push for Phoenix get rid of, or significantly reduce, fines the transit corporation has to pay for instances of poor service, such as buses not arriving on time or not being properly maintained and serviced.

Phoenix already waived more than $2 million worth of fines for Veolia, but the company wants more.

It's painfully clear that Veolia is using the employees' livelihood as leverage because on the cover of the contract Veolia offered the union is this sentence: "This proposal is dependent upon the resolution of other issues that Veolia has with the City of Phoenix."

Just a few weeks ago, Veolia wanted Phoenix officials to amend the fines that the transit company had to pay for when it didn't live up to the terms of its contract.. But the item -- which didn't have the support of the city council -- was yanked from the agenda.

Veolia didn't have any leverage when the matter was first placed on the Phoenix council agenda, but now, with a disruptive strike underway -- guess what item is expected to make an appearance on the March 21 city council agenda?

Yep, a reconsideration of those pesky fines that Veolia is contractually obligated, and agreed, to pay in the event that it provided bus passengers poor service or didn't live up to Phoenix's expectations.

The sentence on the cover of Veolia's offer to bus drivers may as well read: "We will be happy to resolve union issues, end the strike and honor this proposal just as soon as we can get the city to once again cave into our demands and, not only get rid of those costly fines, but also reimburse us for the fines we've already paid."

That would have at least been a more honest approach.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who inherited the transit mess from Gordon, tells New Times that he will work in good faith with Veolia on any issues they have with the city, but he first expects Veolia to negotiate with union reps until the issues are resolved.

But, Veolia would rather play politics and blame the strike on employees.

Veolia executives -- who were awarded sizable bonuses on the same day that bus drivers' agreed to forfeit their own pay and go on strike -- want the public to see this work stoppage as a case of greedy employees.

Veolia released a statement on Friday, in part highlighting that Phoenix bus operators are the "highest paid bus operators in the southwestern United States."

The statement cites that about 97 percent of drivers earn the current top wage rate of $22.52 per hour, before overtime.

But its doesn't explain that those top wages only come after an employee has been there for a decade or longer. And there certainly wasn't any mention of the bonuses that Veolia executives were handed.

Veolia also notes in its statement that its officials "remain committed to the good faith bargaining sessions."

But the past two years hardly support the narrative Veolia executives are trying to create.

Consider that the National Labor Relations Board found that Veolia has repeatedly violated federal labor laws. In a response denying Veolia execs request for more time to answer the complaints, the regional director of the NLRB wrote:

"The number and severity of the alleged unfair labor practices in this case, as well as the fact that [Veolia] has failed to comply with a prior [NLRB] Settlement Agreement, makes plain that a postponement of the trial in this case is not warranted."

Other federal records show that the NLRB "found merit to allegations made" by union officials that Veolia was negotiating in bad faith, was undercutting talks by dealing directly with employees and putting back on the negotiation tables matter that both parties had previously agreed on.

A federal agency found merit to allegations that Veolia has been bargaining in "bad faith," and the corporate giant is "surprised" that workers went on strike.

Read more about how Gordon helped Veolia muscle $30 million out of Phoenix, about how his ex-girlfriend was working for Veolia and coaching executives on how to win the contract, about how the feds are now investigating ties between Gordon and Veolia.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo