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CCTA Drivers Close To Strike, But Talks Continue

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Jonathan Leavitt
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Drivers from Teamsters Local 597 gathered at Burlington's City Hall to rally supporters in advance of a possible strike.

Contract negotiations are scheduled for this weekend between the Chittenden County Transportation Authority management and the driver’s union. The drivers plan to strike on Monday if the two sides don’t reach agreement.

At an auditorium in Burlington City Hall Thursday night, over 150 supporters of CCTA drivers gathered to support Teamsters Local 597, the drivers union.

Unfair hours and working conditions were key issues that could lead to a stop work action. Last month, the union voted 53-4 to reject CCTA's most recent contract offer.

But CCTA General Manager Bill Watterson says the management is ready to reach an agreement.

“We do have a bargaining session scheduled for tomorrow,” said Watterson. “So our focus is on sitting down together with the driver’s union, reaching an agreement and having a new three-year contract.”

Drivers say the use of split shifts – working during the morning commute and again in the evening– make for harsh working conditions.

But the split shift issue is complex. Peak ridership on public transit during morning and evening rush hours necessitate more buses on the road during those times. Hiring part-time workers to work either of those shifts could mean fewer full-time positions.

Both sides say on-the-job conditions are at the crux of what’s holding up negotiations.

Drivers have said onboard cameras are an issue because they create an environment of mistrust. Driver Mike Walker spoke at Thursday’s rally.

“We drive our buses everyday with cameras pointed in our faces, said Walker. “All responsibility rests with the drivers and all authority rests within the management. You delegate authority, never responsibility.”

But Watterson says the cameras are there for the safety of passengers and drivers.

“There do seem to be concerns coming from the driver’s union about those cameras,” said Watterson. “But we believe it’s responsible for CCTA to have those cameras onboard to have a tool to investigate incidents and accidents.”

Supporters at the driver’s rally also spoke about an overall anti-labor climate. Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, likened the situation to a nurse’s strike that loomed at Fletcher Allen hospital in 2012.

“One of the things I think we want to do here tonight is to show solidarity with the guys and women who are driving the buses,” said Baruth. “But we shouldn’t forget it’s part of a larger anti-union context.”

CCTA provides just under 10,000 rides a day. About half of the Burlington School District’s students ride CCTA buses to school, and a large number of Fletcher Allen workers and University of Vermont faculty and students use the transit system.

In the event of a strike, limited service would continue on the Montpelier LINK line and the 116 bus from Middlebury to Burlington. But Watterson says no temporary drivers will be hired if driver’s walk off the job.

“CCTA drivers are the ones who drive the buses on CCTA routes. If they are not available, we will not be able to put service on the street,” said Watterson.

CCTA management says they will be releasing information to the public over the weekend with the outcome of the talks.