Union challenges Laidlaw Transit to submit to binding arbitration

CORVALLIS - School children, college students and other bus passengers here may need a different means of transportation in 1999 as bus operators get closer to a strike.

A six-and-a-half-hour mediation session Dec. 15 between Laidlaw Inc. and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 ended in failure when the multi-billion-dollar Canadian conglomerate refused to modify its contract offer to bus operators that pays barely over the minimum wage and requires drivers to co-pay health insurance premiums (as much as $636.92 a month for a family).

In a mediated session Oct. 26, Laidlaw added just 15 cents over two years to its "last and final offer" of a week earlier. The company's Dec. 15 offer would boost hourly wages 75 cents over two years. However, most of the drivers make only $6.65 an hour, so their wages still would be far behind those of bus operators in similar-size cities.

"Laidlaw says it can't afford to pay our people a decent wage," said Ron Heintzman, president of Local 757. "Let's see. Let's put all our cards on the table and have an impartial third party decide," he said in calling for binding arbitration. Up to this point, Laidlaw has refused arbitration in Corvallis. But last March Laidlaw and Local 757 used it to settle a dispute over Vancouver, Wash., paratransit service, and a month later the company agreed to arbitrate an impasse in negotiations with paramedics at American Medical Response, which Laidlaw owns.

"We believe that the drivers and the Corvallis community have been victimized by Laidlaw's greed," Heintzman said. "We intend to make sure the people of Corvallis learn the true nature of this Canadian corporation that is pillaging the community so it can add to its billion-dollar coffers and the multi-million-dollar compensation of its executives."

The 52 drivers in Corvallis (40 school and 12 city) have already rejected two proposals and have given strike authorization twice. They have been reluctant to strike because of the relationships they have built with the elderly, school children and other riders.

Also, some drivers are single parents who already require public assistance to make ends meet. But they feel they have few options left to convince Laidlaw that they deserve to earn a living wage, especially when the company is reporting record profits - most of which are paid for by taxpayers.

Laidlaw conducts 90 percent of its business in the United States, mostly by contracting with public agencies and school districts. Laidlaw has contracts to provide bus service for the City of Corvallis and the Corvallis School District.

Heintzman said Corvallis city and school bus drivers' wages are at "rock bottom" compared to other Oregon cities, and those cities are spending no more for bus service than does Corvallis. The union and its supporters will be calling on city councilors and school board members asking them to demand that Laidlaw bargain in good faith and allow an arbitrator to decide outstanding issues or terminate the contracts.

In preparation for a strike, the union launched a food drive last month. It has asked the public for support by donations of non-perishable food items. To donate, call toll-free at 1-800-797-4373 and someone will collect the food.

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