Negotiations will resume this weekend between the Orange County Transportation Authority and the union representing its maintenance workers, offering some hope for an end to the strike that has shut down all bus service.
After a back-and-forth in the media Friday over the stalled negotiations, an announcement was made that talks would resume on Saturday. Both sides agreed to meet Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Meanwhile, bus service can resume Monday and Tuesday as Teamsters leaders will lift the picket lines for those days so commuters can get to the polls on Election Day.
Teamsters Local 952 officials said the strike will continue and picket lines will remain up through Sunday until 4 p.m. If there is no agreement by then the union will reconsider hitting the picket lines again on Wednesday, which could halt bus service again.
Both sides seemed stalemated earlier Friday.
“OCTA reached out yesterday to come back to the table and we told them we would come back to the table with the understanding we’re there to bargain,” said Erc Jimenez, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamster Local 952.
“They have messaged back down to us they were keeping their position, standing their ground, so why come back now? To watch the paint dry? They asked, we agreed, and they came back and said, `We’re not moving on our positions.’ They’re playing hardball. We have moved our offer down quite a bit over the past couple of sessions. We have made movement on things they could accept and they’re not willing to do it.”
OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik responded, “We’re willing to continue the discussions. We think the offer on the table is really competitive in the market. In the market we’re in for Southern California, we’re only below LA Metro, which is a significantly larger transit system. And ultimately, none of these issues can be worked out unless we’re at the bargaining table. The union chose to strike, ending negotiations. If we’re going to resolve this, it has to be done in negotiations.”
The union called the walkout Wednesday — setting up picket lines at the agency’s Santa Ana and Garden Grove yards — and Thursday was the first day that bus commuters were left to look for alternate means of getting to and from work, doctor visits and other appointments.
“People are stranded,” Zlotnik said. “They can’t get to work. They can’t get to school. People are going to lose their jobs, and if the union would come back to the bargaining table and call off the strike, we can get people moving again.”
OCTA had alerted commuters to check the agency’s website at octa.net for any updates — but despite the warnings, people unaware of the disruption were still seen Thursday morning at various bus stops, waiting for buses that weren’t coming.
Orange County Board Chairman Doug Chaffee, who also serves on the OCTA board, said Thursday that it doesn’t appear Gov. Gavin Newsom will step in anytime soon.
“The governor’s been called, but he’s declined to invoke the power he has to temporarily stop the strike,” Chaffee said. “The strike may last a while, but I hope not.”
Chaffee said he believes “The hang-up is health care” in the negotiations.
“If we accept the contract the way it is now, we’ll see the price of health care” increase. “With inflation going up and living in Orange County and yet they’re asking our members to pay more out-of-pocket for health care. That’s the main issue.”
OCTA claims it can offer health care benefits for a lot less money than the Teamsters. The Teamsters Labor Alliance Trust Fund costs $350 monthly for every plan, but the bus drivers, who are also represented by the same union, receive health care through the transportation agency and they pay $38.05 for single coverage, $108.18 for two-party coverage and $220.52 for family coverage.
OCTA claims that annual savings for each plan would be $3,743.40, $2,901.84 and $1,553.82, respectively.
Jimenez said the OCTA plans offer “inferior benefits.”
When union negotiators “pointed out (OCTA’s plans) didn’t save the money they thought it would save and had inferior benefits from what they get now, they withdrew their proposal,” Jimenez said. “If their health care plan wasn’t better — if it was such a good deal, they’d have kept it on the table and kept fighting for it. … It looks cheaper, but once you get into the nuts and bolts of the plans, including the benefits of doctor co-pays and deductibles, they are a lot more than what our plan is.”
Jimenez acknowledged that the agency’s bus drivers are covered by OCTA’s plans, but he said that was negotiated prior to his leading the union.
“Believe it or not, we get an earful from our bus drivers all the time because they used to be on the same plan as the mechanics,” Jimenez said. “The mechanics don’t want to because our benefits are a lot better benefits.”
A major sticking point in negotiations has been OCTA’s contribution to health care insurance, Jimenez said.
Jimenez said the union is reticent to agree to a short-term deal or extension so a longer-term bargain can be struck. The union did negotiate extensions with some employers during the pandemic, he added.
“We have negotiated yearlong extensions during the pandemic to see where we’re at a year from now,” Jimenez said. “But (OCTA) likes to drag things out so long. You almost don’t want to give them that opportunity because they’ll come back a year later and screw you over. The history of OCTA is if a contract ends in January, they’ll go six months to a year later, so when you do ratify a contract, then a year later, you’re back at the table again. If we could trust the company and sit down and say, `See what happened in a year- or even a two-year deal,’ we would , but with OCTA, they’re so unpredictable.”
The union’s bus drivers “went almost a year without a contract because they like to drag things on and on,” Jimenez said.
Zlotnik responded, “We have no desire to drag on negotiations and we want to see this resolved as soon as possible. The only people getting hurt are OCTA employees and the public that has no other way to travel. There are 150 maintenance workers and that’s forcing more than a thousand other OCTA employees to be on strike, and they are also not getting paid. It’s disappointing for our employees and it’s terrible that the public doesn’t have a transportation system they can rely on.”
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,” Zlotnik said.
A strike that was previously planned for Oct. 17 was called off when 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.
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.
Union officials countered that the pay raise was not retroactive to the date when the last contract expired and did not take into account the current consumer price index.
The offer also include a 16% hike in health care 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.
Teamsters leaders say the maintenance workers have not had a pension increase in more than a decade.
The top wage for mechanics would be $43.19 per hour, or $90,000 annually, which doesn’t include health care 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.
Union representatives said they feel they have done everything they can to settle the labor dispute, which has lingered since negotiations began May 25.
Officials with the union vowed they would not return to talks until the agency has “significantly” updated its bargaining position.