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Need in-person talks, Central Arkansas bus drivers' union says

by Noel Oman | July 28, 2021 at 4:01 a.m.
In this file photo passengers wait for their Rock Region Metro bus at the River Cities Travel Center in downtown Little Rock.

An official with the union representing Rock Region Metro bus drivers and maintenance personnel says the union wants in-person negotiations for a new labor agreement because virtual discussions are moving at a "snail's pace."

Curtis Howard, who works for the Amalgamated Transit Union, also said that drivers want the 10-rider limit re-imposed on regular bus routes out of concern for their safety.

His comments came at the monthly board meeting of the Pulaski County transit agency.

Earlier in the meeting, the agency's top executive briefly touched on the negotiations with Local 704.

"We've been meeting virtually ... we do have a mediator that we work with," Charles Frazier told the board. "Those negotiations continue and they will continue until we come to an agreement, which I'm confident that we will as we have for many years before."

The union operates under three-year contracts, according to Becca Green, a spokeswoman for Rock Region. The most recent agreement expired June 30. The union has 91 dues-paying agency employees, most of them drivers. They are working under an agreed-upon extension of the expired contract, Green said.

Howard, who works for the international union and is helping the local with contract negotiations, said the concern among union negotiators is that discussions haven't included provisions for a retroactive pay increase.

In-person negotiations would speed up reaching an agreement and leave union members with smaller time frame of going without a pay increase, he said.

"The local would like to have your support to do in-person negotiations," Howard told the board. "We believe we can get more accomplished that way. It's moving at a very snail's pace.

"We have concerns about that because no retroactivity has been put on the table. Every day we go past this date of expiration, we'll be fighting for retroactivity."

Board Chairman Art Kinnaman declined to get involved in the matter.

"The negotiations are ongoing, but it's definitely not really appropriate for me to weigh in or anyone," he said. "I would typically refer this to our leadership and representation by our legal counsel.

"We appreciate your commitment to the process and being here and I know we will strive to put our best foot forward and work closely to come up with an agreement that is beneficial to all sides."

The meeting continued with other agenda items, but at one point board member Bruce Moore, who is the city manager for Little Rock, asked Frazier for his thoughts on in-person negotiations.

"We'll certainly take it into consideration," he said.

But Frazier pointed out that the mediator isn't allowed to travel because of pandemic restrictions so he wouldn't be able to participate in person. Further, Frazier said, his lead negotiator has concerns about meeting in person.

"Even if there is part of us meeting together, there will be a portion that's virtual," he said. "I'll take it under consideration, but frankly, I don't think we'd be any farther ahead meeting in person. Certainly, we're meeting in the board meeting virtually and still getting business done."

As for retroactive pay increases, Green said in an email after the meeting that it is "reasonable to assume if there were any negotiated wage increases put in place in the new agreement, they would begin whenever the new contract is put in place; however, METRO could technically opt, should any wage increases actually be negotiated, to pay the union members those new wages retroactive to July 1, 2021."

But any discussion of that point should be part of the negotiations and not outside the negotiations, she said.

"I believe the union was stating that they would like a guarantee that any potentially negotiated and agreed upon wage increases be retroactive to July 1," Green said. "Obviously, as we are still in negotiations, this is a request we would expect to be aired within – not outside of – the bargaining parties' communications so METRO has the typical opportunity to engage with the union on this point, as part of the established negotiating process."

The union's request to limit buses to 10 passengers comes as covid-19 positive cases and hospitalizations spike to levels not seen since February.

"The count is going back up for covid," Howard said. "The operators are feeling a little unsafe with everything opening back up. They'd like some consideration on that part as well."

The 10-passenger limit was in place during much of the pandemic. It required Rock Region to shut down some low-performing routes to add buses to busier routes to keep the 10-passenger limit in place.

The agency increased the limit to 25 passengers for regular buses and to six passengers for paratransit vehicles on April 15, Green said. All passenger limits were dropped June 1.

Rock Region still requires all passengers to wear a mask. That federal mandate has been extended to Sept. 21.

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