Drivers for WHEELS hold one-day strike to save jobs

SALEM — Drivers from the WHEELS paratransit program held a one-day strike July 7 to draw attention to the possibility that their employer won’t have its contract with the Salem Area Mass Transit District renewed at the end of the year.

The 65 drivers, represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, provide door-to-door bus service to disabled persons who need a ride to and from work and medical appointments. WHEELS provides the service under a subcontract with the Transit District, which operates the Cherriots bus system in the Salem and Keizer area. The transport program for the disabled is funded partly by local, state and federal tax dollars.

WHEELS is a division of the non-profit Oregon Housing and Associated Services. It has had the paratransit contract at the Transit District since 1997, where it has received high praise by independent auditors for its service.

ATU’s contract at WHEELS expired June 31. It was at the opening bargaining session that the union first learned WHEELS might not have its contract renewed. “We were blindsided. We had no idea an RFP (request for proposal) had gone out,” said said Jon Hunt, president of Local 757.

Because WHEELS’ future at the Salem Area Mass Transit District was in limbo, management wasn’t in a position to make any contract offers.

The union took the “no offer” to a vote July 5, where members voted unanimously to strike.

Union officials then went to the Transit District to find out what was going on. Hunt was particularly upset with general manager Jeff Hamm. Just weeks before, Hunt had worked side-by-side with Hamm placing lawn signs in the area in support of a transit agency bond measure that was going to appear on the May ballot.

“He didn’t mention any thing about the RFP,” Hunt told the NW Labor Press.

The union and its members worked hard promoting the bond measure, which won the popular vote, but failed to be enacted because of the state’s “double-majority” rule, whereby more than 50 percent of registered voters must cast ballots on measures that raise taxes.

Following the RFP bombshell, the union asked Hamm to at least add language that would protect operators’ wages and benefits. Drivers at WHEELS earn between $12 to $15.50 an hour, with some benefits.

Hamm asked Hunt to provide him language to insert in the RFP that would put all bidders on a level playing field, and protect the existing workforce.

The language Hunt offered was ... “Any new contractor retained by the public body must retain the existing workforce and assume the existing terms and conditions of employment as provided for in any collective bargaining agreement covering said employees at the time the contract is awarded.”

According to union officials, Hamm led them to believe that the problem could be worked out. He suggested the parties meet. When Hunt did not hear from Hamm, he got concerned and was stunned when he finally reached Hamm and was told that Salem Transit was not going to require any workforce protection and contract preservation language.

Workers decided to send a message of their own by walking off the job July 7. “We had no choice,” Hunt said. “We are trying to protect our family-wage jobs and our health insurance, but it looks like they will disappear soon.”

Hunt says that several companies are interested in bidding for the paratransit work, including MV Transportation, Laidlaw Inc. and First Transit. All are, Hunt said, notorious for anti-union behavior.

“The bid appears to be rigged,” said Hunt, explaining that all competitors will have the same bus, fuel and maintenance costs. “The only place to cut is the drivers’ wages and benefits.”

WHEELS executive director Jay Lynch told the Salem Statesman-Journal that he intends to submit a proposal to keep the contract. But without language protecting driver wages and benefits, he said, WHEELS cannot offer a proposal that is financially competitive.

“We’ll submit a bid,” he said. “But we’re committed to paying a wage that will attract and maintain an experienced and well-qualified staff. We are concerned that the playing field is not level.”

“Hopefully we got the attention of the Transit District’s board of directors,” Hunt said. “There might be more service interruptions if drivers don’t get the assurances they want.”

WHEELS makes about 1,000 trips a day for area residents.

The Transit District extended its deadline to receive RFPs from July 6 to Aug. 17.