Crippling Lane Transit strike ends after six days

EUGENE — Buses are again transporting riders at Lane Transit District following ratification March 13 of a new three-year contract by members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. The vote was 185-6.

The six-day strike by 236 drivers, mechanics and customer service representatives stopped all buses (carrying approximately 33,000 riders a day) from rolling in Eugene and the surrounding area, including Springfield and Cottage Grove, starting March 7. School districts that relied on the district had to contract bus operations with outside agencies.

It was the first strike in LTD’s 35-year history.

The sides returned to the bargaining table March 10 with a state mediator and a hand-picked mediation team that included Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, former state labor commissioner Jack Roberts and local attorney Art Johnson.

In an article published by the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald newspaper, Piercy also commended the involvement of her husband, David Piercy, and Margaret Hallock of the Wayne Morse Law Center, who she said were “very skilled at working together and thinking outside the box.”

The talks lasted 17 hours before breaking. A second session kicked off at 9 a.m. March 11, but it was interrupted for two hours so that LTD’s attorney, Jacqueline Damm of the Portland law firm of Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson, could attend the Oregon Horse Show in Eugene.

“The horse show? While we are waiting? This is emblematic of the kind of contempt the management has shown to the people of Eugene who are working to end this labor strife,” Al Zullo, president of Local 757, said at the time.

But by midnight, a tentative deal had been reached.

From the start of bargaining more than a year ago — when the previous contract expired — talks have been contentious. LTD came to the table pleading poverty and demanding 70 takeaways from the contract. In response, the union asked that the old contract be renewed without raises for one year.

Then, to make matters worse, the union learned that the district actually had millions stashed away in a rainy-day fund. At that time, Jonathan Hunt, vice president of Local 757, told the media, “It was talked that the money that’s in reserves was waiting for a rainy day ... well, it’s about to pour,” referring to an impending strike.

Hunt believes LTD’s hard-line bargaining tactics revolved around a $400,000 arbitration the union won last year against Lane Transit over health insurance costs that had been passed onto employees.

“They said at the time they’d get it back (the $400,000) in the next contract,” Hunt told the NW Labor Press.

Workers actually were hours away from walking out Feb. 1, but decided against it when a community group suggested a 35-day cooling-off period to allow an outside auditor to look at the negotiations and make recommendations to both sides.

LTD declined the group’s offer and implemented a portion of its final contract proposal Feb. 1, 2005.

As the cooling-off deadline approached, the sides again returned to the bargaining table. But LTD still refused to budge from its “best, last and final offer.” The proposal was taken to the membership for a vote March 6, where it was handily rejected 188-9.

Picket lines went up at at all major LTD stations and several rallies were held. After one rally, about 40 people walked to the SELCO credit union’s annual meeting at the Eugene Hilton Hotel, where LTD General Manager Ken Hamm was seeking election to the credit union’s Board of Directors.

Among the group sitting in the audience was “Pepper the Greed-Fighting ’Possum.” Hunt said he expressed the union’s disapproval of Hamm’s handling of the contract talks and voiced concern about him being elected to the SELCO board. Hamm was not elected.

Three days into the strike, the mediation team was brought in, and workers had a new proposal to vote on by the afternoon of March 13.

The new agreement calls for a 6 percent raise over three years, retroactive to February 2004 — when the previous contract expired.

The wage hike for 2004 will be dedicated to a program that allows LTD to make tax-free deposits into a medical savings account. The union also will retain its preferred provider organization plan. The compromise accomplishes two things — it stabilizes insurance costs for the district while not increasing the out-of-pocket expenses for bargaining unit members.

“Our members will not see any extra costs associated with their medical plan,” Hunt said.

The new contract also increases the short-term disability from $200 to $400 a week. A life insurance policy also was increased from $30,000 to $50,000.

And, in compliance with a recent Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruling, the contract now includes language establishing a meal break.

“We received great support from the community,” Hunt said. “Our membership is stronger than ever, and I think we sent a message that ATU can and will mobilize — and strike for as long as it takes if we are forced to.”