Veolia Transportation Says It "Highly" Values Employees, But Workers Say They Aren't Feeling the Love

Veolia Transportation continues to negotiate with two labor unions representing employees who drive and maintain Phoenix city buses. Company execs have already inked a contract with the mechanics' union.

Negotiations have been ongoing since union contracts expired on June 30.

During that time, Phoenix officials have warned the public about potential strikes. Bus drivers have led a couple of public protests objecting to Veolia bringing in replacement workers. And Veolia locked out about 60 bus maintenance employees for about a week after negotiations broke down.

Replacement workers took over, and union officials filed charges against Veolia with the National Labor Relations Board claiming, in part, that the company was not negotiating in good faith.

Company officials agreed to allow employees back on the job site and resume negotiations on the same day that Veolia was due to respond to union reps' allegations.

Veolia spokeswoman Val Michael has said that the company is hopeful that it will reach agreements with labor organizations.

It has been a very messy -- and public -- process that has created a dark cloud of uncertainty for passengers who rely on the 33 bus routes that Veolia operates in the Phoenix metro area.

Veolia CEO and President Mark Joseph wrote a letter to the City Council in August to assure them that the company "highly" valued Phoenix bus workers and residents.

Some workers, however, told New Times that they weren't feeling the love.

Non-union workers had their pay slashed by about 40 percent earlier this year, lost all but 35 days of accrued sick time they had been allowed to save up for retirement, had to reapply for their jobs with Veolia -- the exact same company -- and sign a form waiving their legal rights to recoup "any and all" lost benefits if they wanted to keep their jobs.

"What are you supposed to do?" Lynn Melling, a former Veolia employee told New Times. "You either sign it or you're gone. That's basically what they told me. I asked them, 'When do I have to sign this?' They said, 'Today.' I didn't even have a chance to talk to my wife or a financial advisor."

Melling signed it, but later put in for early retirement when he realized that it was the only way he could save the more than $25,000 he had banked in sick leave during his 20-plus years with the company.

"I can understand a cut in pay," Melling said. "But 40 percent? And losing benefits you worked for? I don't understand that. It was an ugly situation."

Melling, 61, and other Veolia employees believe they should have been given time to consider the offer forced upon them -- especially since it entailed them losing money and waiving their rights.

Legal experts at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) said that if workers are being asked to waive their rights, they have to do it knowingly and voluntarily.

It's difficult to say that employees "voluntarily" waived their rights when not doing so meant losing their jobs. And to satisfy, "knowingly," legal experts say case law requires that employers identify the statutes (which list employee rights) that they are asking employees to give up.

The letter that Veolia presented to Melling did not include that. It broadly stated that by accepting Veolia's offer to continue working for the company, "you waive any and all claims ...including, but not limited to, any claims for payment (either now or in the future) of sick leave..."

Melling and other workers told New Times they have filed complaints with the Arizona Attorney General Office and the EEOC. Neither agency will comment on whether they are looking into Veolia employees' claims.

Veolia employees weren't always at odds with their corporate leaders. In June 2009, union members showed up at a City Council meeting to speak in favor of Veolia operating the north and south bus facilities.

Phoenix transit officials recommended hiring separate transportation companies for each facility, but in the end, the City Council decided to go with a single operator: Veolia.

It hasn't worked out so well for Veolia's employees in Phoenix.

Veolia's Chief Operating Officer Ken Westbrook wrote to the City Council in September to counter what he called "inaccurate information" being disseminated by some employees.

In the letter, he assure them that "Veolia is not (and has not been) seeking to reduce the current wage rate of any current employee."

That was about 10 weeks after a batch of employees had already been hit with an average pay cut of 40 percent.

As weeks turned into months, and Veolia still didn't (and doesn't yet) have contracts with all employees, it seemed corporate executives wanted to make sure Phoenix council members to know it wasn't Veolia's fault.

Joseph told the City Council that it was the unions who were "unwilling to share in the sacrifices that all stakeholders must make."

"No one likes these realities but we all have to face them and deal with them," Joseph wrote.

Westbrook, in his letter, also told elected officials that "it is imperative that our labor partners share some of the sacrifices that need to be made ..."

Meanwhile, the company bumped the salary of the current general manager to $180,000 (the previous GM made $134,000) and gave him free use of the corporate apartment and a company car and free flights back to his hometown of Las Vegas, according to e-mail exchanges between Veolia executives.

Andy Marshall, an executive officer with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 104, also pointed out to the Phoenix City Council during a public meeting that Veolia's former maintenance manager made $85,000, but the new person in that position gets $158,000, plus a $15,000 annual pension payment and a company car.

Joseph wrote that union leaders were trying to "smear the reputation" of the company. He touted the company's desire to do what is in the best interest of Phoenix residents.

That wasn't so evident on in May when Veolia informed the city that it was simply walking away from its Phoenix bus contract, potentially leaving thousands of bus riders abandoned.

Company execs only agreed to continue providing bus service after Phoenix officials flew to Chicago, signed agreements to give Veolia nearly $30 million, promised not to go after $681,000 that Phoenix believes it paid the company in error and deleted contract provisions Veolia didn't like --- including a $50,000 per day fine if workers go on strike.

Naturally, Joseph's letter didn't mention that it was Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon who suggested Veolia threaten to walk away from its contract. Or that Gordon's girlfriend is on Veolia's payroll and played a role in putting together the winning bid.

However, he included this: "It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. The same can be said for companies and organizations faced with challenge and controversy."

And Joseph is spot on -- his company can be measured by how it has stood during challenging times.

Just ask Melling or one of the other non-union employees who had to waive their rights in order to keep their jobs, who took a 40 percent pay cut while the general manager's base salary went up by more than 30 percent, who lost benefits they had earned and saved for their retirement over a decade or longer.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo