Thousands of Orange County bus riders found themselves without service Thursday, with the union representing Orange County Transportation Authority maintenance workers striking over what it calls stalled labor negotiations.
The union called the walkout Wednesday — setting up picket lines at the agency’s Santa Ana and Garden Grove yards and forcing a shutdown in bus service beginning Thursday.
The agency alerted commuters to find alternate means of travel and check the agency’s website at octa.net for any updates. Despite the warnings, people unaware of the disruption were still seen Thursday morning at various bus stops, waiting for buses that weren’t coming.
The city of Santa Ana released a statement advising bus riders to prepare for service disruptions until at least Sunday.
“Orange County Transportation Authority announced there may be disruptions in OC Bus service starting today, Wednesday, Nov. 2, and there will be NO OC BUS SERVICE tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 3, and potentially through Sunday, Nov. 6, due to a maintenance employees’ strike. Riders should plan alternate ways to travel,” according to the city.
Updated information is available at octa.net/Bus/Service-Alerts/.
The union’s 150 machinists, mechanics and service technicians provide a variety of services, from gassing up buses to making repairs.
“We cannot safely operate our buses without our maintenance employees,” Joel Zlotnik, an OCTA spokesman, said Wednesday.
A strike that was previously planned for Oct. 17 was called off when Gov. Gavin Newsom asked both sides to continue negotiations, but the talks fizzled this week when Teamsters Local 952 claimed OCTA negotiators walked away from the bargaining table on Monday.
OCTA officials have again asked Newsom to temporarily halt the strike, but the agency had yet to receive a response as of Wednesday, Zlotnik said. The governor could intervene and appoint an independent board to review the sticking points while negotiations continued.
“We have done everything in our power to avoid a strike,” Teamsters Local 952 Secretary-Treasurer Eric Jimenez said in a statement Wednesday. “They have even rejected our proposals that would save them money on members’ health care. But when OCTA walked away from the table on Monday, they gave us no other choice.”
Zlotnik, however, replied, “That’s untrue. I won’t discuss the details of the negotiations. There have been proposals back and forth, and we fully expected to continue those talks on Friday.”
Later Wednesday, OCTA officials released terms of the agency’s contract offers. According to OCTA, the agency offered a 14.25% salary increase over three years, which includes an immediate 5% pay hike, another 4.75% increase on Oct. 1 of next year and an additional 4.5% raise on Oct. 1 of 2024.
The offer also include a 16% hike in healthcare contributions over the same period, in addition to chipping in 26.4% of salary to the Orange County Employees Retirement System and $1.30 per hour worked — up to 2,080 hours — to the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Fund.
The top wage for mechanics would be $43.19 per hour, or $90,000 annually, which doesn’t include healthcare and pension contributions, according to the OCTA.
OCTA officials argued that because the maintenance employees are in the union’s trust for their health insurance benefits, the cost of the plan and design of it is up to the Teamsters.
Bus drivers, who are under the agency’s health care plan, pay about $120 per month for health care, and OCTA has offered to provide health care options to lower the monthly cost for the mechanics, according to the agency.
“We understand how this labor dispute will adversely affect thousands of riders who depend on the bus system for their transportation needs,” Jimenez said.
Union representatives said they feel they have done everything they can to settle the labor dispute, which has lingered since negotiations began May 25.
“We have brought in mediators,” Jimenez said. “We have come up with ways to save OCTA money on health care. We have reached out to OCTA board members and local political leaders. We have honored the governor’s request to return to the table and continue talks. We have asked our members to be patient and continue working with the utmost professionalism without an agreement … only to have OCTA continually refuse to bargain in good faith and disrespect us by walking out of negotiations.”
The union will not return to talks until the agency has “significantly” updated its bargaining position, officials said.
“They have asked us to meet with them again on Friday,” Jimenez said. “We are willing to do so only if there are significant changes in their bargaining posture. If not, another meeting would not be productive.”
Zlotnik said the agency was “very disappointed in the approach the union has taken in these negotiations. We have reached out to them and had asked to continue meeting on Friday, and, instead, it appears rather than meet they have chosen to go on strike.”
The agency “feels terrible for the riders who are really the ones who are the most hurt by this,” Zlotnik said.
OCTA has provided a “competitive, fair offer and similar in nature to the agreement we reached with coach operators earlier this year, and we’re disappointed the union won’t continue the negotiations,” Zlotnik added.