Tired of tiers

Municipal bus line workers authorize strike

A passenger pays the fare on a Reno municipal bus.

A passenger pays the fare on a Reno municipal bus.


Members of the Teamsters Union Local 533 voted on July 14 to authorize a strike, giving their negotiators in talks with MV Transportation, Inc. more leverage.

MV has the contract from the Regional Transportation Commission to run municipal bus service in this area in the system called RTC Ride.

MV, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, is the public transportation equivalent of a big box store. It says it has contracts in 200-plus places in North America.

The union local says it represents 187 workers—drivers, dispatchers, mechanics, maintenance and support workers. Not all those in the bargaining group are union members, but they are covered under the Teamsters contract.

While money and benefits are at issue in the current contract talks, workers we interviewed also said they want something more basic—simplification, particularly in health care and pensions.

One of the things drivers say they told the union to seek in negotiations is an end to a two-tiered, three-plan health insurance system, complex even by the standards of health plans. Workers are assigned to tiers based on their hire dates, and they are slotted into the Affordable Care Act, Hometown Health, or Delta, the Teamsters’ own plan. Navigating the various rules, limits and restrictions of the multiples tends to make workers crazy, and they say it fuels the notoriously high turnover rate of system employees.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process to explain it to them,” said union local president Gary Watson.

While labor union critics like to portray unions as not being representative of workers, it would be hard to make that case here. Employees we spoke with were uniformly critical of the system imposed on them by the company. They have voted to authorize the union to call a strike if necessary.

“They want to go backward on coverage,” one driver told us. “We were told the two-tiered system would be short-lived, and here we are years later.”

One supporter of the workers said, “One runs out of adjectives when ’Kafkaesque’ and ’labyrinthine’ no longer suffice.”

Employees want everyone poured into Delta. Some of them think that may mean slightly higher costs to them, but they are willing to accept it to get rid of the bureaucratic nightmare with which they now live. Watson said he is not clear what it will mean in terms of money for his members. Simplification may not come in that exact form, but the workers we spoke with are hoping for some easier system.

“It just depends on whether there’s an agreed-upon amount for the employee to pay,” he said.

The pension system also has tiers and, while the annoyance factor is a little less than for health care, no one is happy with it.

Watson said he thinks the union is making progress on simplicity, though it causes the talks to be drawn out.

“It’s a very difficult contract,” he said.

One of the things that complicates things is that one of the three health plans is the ACA.

“What if the ACA is repealed after we approve a contract that incorporates it?” he asked.

There are also other, lesser details workers would like dealt with. According to one source, “They expect drivers to keep to a clock, 1950s time-and-motion-study-style management. They must stop whenever they see people at a bus stop no matter whether they are waiting for another bus or just having a seat on a nice day. They need to implement a wave-by rule where if there is no one at that stop who needs, e.g., bus no. 26 going to Timbuktu, they can wave it on. Public education and signage would do the trick.”

Some drivers do observe wave-ons from people waiting at stops for other buses, but it is apparently not company policy.

MV spokesperson Nikki Frenney-Wiggins was not available for an interview, but she supplied a statement that read in part:

“At the conclusion of our bargaining meeting on July 10, MV Transportation once again proposed to the union what we believe is a very fair and reasonable offer. This offer included a 9.7 percent overall wage increase in the first year, and a starting wage going from $12.00 an hour to $15.50 during the term of the agreement. The offer also included substantial increases to pension, holidays, vacation and health benefits. Unfortunately, we were not able to reach a tentative agreement with the committee. Because MV believes the offer is one our employees should see, we provided an opportunity for the union to vote on [sic]. MV had also submitted an offer to vote for the road supervisors collective bargaining agreement on July 11. The union membership voted down both offers on July 14. Shortly after the vote, the company and the union agreed to meet again and continue bargaining on July 26, 2017.”

Simplification was not addressed in the statement.

Drivers in recent days have been showing footage on their phones that has been shot of drivers being trained, which they describe as training for out-of-towners brought to Reno by management to be strikebreakers. The footage shows two people in an empty bus, one in the driver’s seat, the other standing near him to instruct him. Both are wearing florescent vests. The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the training. The union says the trainees then disappeared for a time but have recently reappeared, and the NLRB complaint is being pressed.

The MV statement, dated July 20, also read, “Since the July 14 vote, MV has experienced a dramatic increase in employee absenteeism. Daily coach operator call-offs have gone from two or three a day prior to the contract vote, to steadily increasing up to 11 per day on July 20. In an effort to provide continuity of service and to meet our contractual obligation to RTC and the community we serve, qualified operators who work for MV Transportation contracts in other communities are serving as temporary drivers only when a MV/RTC operator is not available.”

Supporters of the workers are calling on members of the public to put pressure on elected members of the Regional Transportation Commission, which brought MV to Nevada (“Driven to distraction” guest comment, RN&R, July 20, 2017).

More than once in the past, when a municipal bus strike was a possibility during contract talks, previous managers of the line claimed to news outlets that if there was a strike, the drivers would pull over and halt where they were, leaving passengers stranded. Journalists reported it as true, though it was not. The current managers have not tried this ploy, and drivers say they would always complete their routes before leaving the job.