Labor works together to pass Corvallis bus operators initiative

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

CORVALLIS - On Sept. 21, voters here gave city bus operators what organizing, negotiating, and one-day walkouts hadn't been able to achieve in three years: a $3 to $4 an hour raise.

The vote was the culmination of a six-month campaign by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 to win improvements for drivers via ballot initiative after the legal requirement to bargain in good faith failed to get any contract from Laidlaw, Inc., the $3.5-billion-a-year Canadian multinational that has the contract to provide municipal bus service in Corvallis.

After more than 12 months of unsuccessful negotiating, the union decided to pursue the ballot box route to a raise. The measure, an amendment to the city charter, mandates that the City of Corvallis require transit contractors to pay employees the prevailing wage - the average wage for similar workers within a 100-mile radius - about $11-$12 an hour.

It was a closely watched election locally, and it had a high turnout. Typically in an off-year election 2,250 people vote, reports Local 757 attorney Susan Stoner. This time 8,826 people - 45 percent of registered voters - sent in their ballots. The measure passed 5,752 to 3,074, or 65 to 34 percent. Corvallis city bus operator Bob Maguire said he and the other drivers were overwhelmed with the support the community showed for their cause.

In addition to the 3,200 people who signed the initiative petition and thousands who voted yes, hundreds of residents showed support by posting lawn signs that said "$6.65 is not enough" and "Stop the greed," and dozens of letter-writers had kept the issue alive in the pages of the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

From the outset, the campaign bubbled with union solidarity. The national AFL-CIO sent field representative George Curtin to help for two weeks in mid-spring. The Oregon AFL-CIO identified union households in Corvallis and distributed three mailings explaining the initiative. The Oregon Public Employees Union (OPEU) helped with phone banking and computer work. Staff and members from United Food and Commercial Workers and the Carpenters Union helped drivers go door-to-door asking residents to put up lawn signs. And Carpenters Local 1094 let the campaign make extensive use of its Corvallis office.

All this to give long-overdue raises of $3 to $4 an hour to 14 drivers and one mechanic. "It was not just for the 14 drivers," said Ron Heintzman, Local 757 president. "We do things to set a precedent."

One impact of the victory may be the example it sets for the Corvallis School Board, which has been asked by Local 757 to institute a similar policy for its contracted-out school bus operation (also with Laidlaw Inc.).

Another outcome could be the passage of a city-wide living wage ordinance. Karin Gerstel, staffperson for the Mid-Willamette Valley chapter of Jobs With Justice, says the bus drivers' campaign has given momentum to the local campaign for an across-the-board living wage ordinance After the Corvallis City Council declined to pass such an ordinance, supporters collected enough signatures to qualify a measure that would set a $9 an hour wage floor for all work contracted by the City of Corvallis. The measure will be decided on the Nov. 2 ballot, which will be mailed to local voters Oct. 18.

In any event, the city bus operators will get their raises in January, according to Heintzman, when Laidlaw's contract with the city is up, regardless of who gets the contract. Heintzman is hopeful the contract will be awarded to another company or taken in-house. The existing arrangement with Laidlaw hasn't been a good deal for the city or the drivers, he argued.

In that arrangement, the City of Corvallis provides the buses and sets the routes. Laidlaw supposedly oversees the operation. Laidlaw handles bus maintenance, but it bills the city $35 an hour for labor and charges cost-plus for any parts it has to order. In effect then, ATU attorney Stoner said, Laidlaw does little more than process the payroll, billing the city $483,917 in 1997.

Laidlaw's profit margin on its contract with the City of Corvallis is not public information, but Local 757 conducted its own analysis and came up with a rough guess: For 1997, with payroll at $178,000, Laidlaw made a gross profit of $300,000.

October 15, 1999 issue

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