Public bus service across Orange County could stop as soon as Wednesday evening if the mechanics’ union follows through with a planned strike, officials told Voice of OC Wednesday.
The move comes amid a breakdown in negotiations between Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) leaders and Teamsters Local 952, which represents bus maintenance workers.
OCTA officials say they’ve made a fair offer that’s similar to what bus drivers got earlier this year, while the union says that’s false when it comes to healthcare benefits and that OCTA walked away from the bargaining table Monday without responding to the union’s counteroffer.
Picket lines are set to start after 4 p.m. Wednesday, with bus drivers expected not to cross the line out of sympathy for the mechanics, said Eric Jiminez, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters local.
“If we accept the agreement as-is, as proposed by [OCTA], our members will see [health care] costs by next year go somewhere up to $400, and over the life of the contract close to $500 per month for healthcare,” Jiminez said in a Wednesday phone interview.
They’re the only bargaining group of OCTA employees that has to pay the full cost of healthcare premium increases, rather than share the cost with OCTA, he said.
OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik declined to say what the negotiations impasse is about, but emphasized officials want to avoid a strike.
“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to really go into a lot of detail about the negotiations. We think we have made a fair offer, a competitive offer,” Zlotnik said in a Wednesday phone interview.
“OCTA would also ask the union to continue negotiating, rather than leaving passengers all over Orange County stranded,” he added. “We don’t think there’s any reason we can’t continue discussions and get to an agreement without hurting the public.”
In a Wednesday statement, OCTA Chairman Mark Murphy said the contract is on par with other transportation employees.
“We believe the contract offer we’ve made to maintenance employees is in line with what was offered to our coach operators and other union workers. It’s a generous offer that is very competitive in the marketplace,” said Murphy, who also is mayor of Orange.
Union leaders say they know it will impact the public, but that residents can call on their elected leaders to negotiate in good faith – and that actions like this help lift everyone’s wages.
“They can call their elected officials, and they can tell their elected officials who sit as OCTA directors, and they can say enough is enough … start bargaining in good faith,” Jiminez said.
“We’re obligated to fight for our members … they have the right to fight for better wages, better working conditions, better healthcare,” he added. “Everybody in this country deserves better healthcare.”
Jimnez said the union standing up for the 150 maintenance workers “sends a message that we all deserve better healthcare”
It comes after a strike was averted in February between the bus drivers’ union and OCTA, and another planned strike was averted last month involving the mechanics union.
OCTA officials were first notified of the planned mechanics strike by union leaders around lunchtime Wednesday, Zlotnik said.
The notice said the union could go on strike anytime in the next four days, he told Voice of OC.
If that happens, bus service would halt on each route after the buses finish their shifts, Zlotnik said.
“If there is a strike today, we expect to continue running the buses that are in service. They would finish the routes tonight. And if the union chooses to strike and leave our passengers without any buses that we can operate safely, that [service stoppage] could begin as soon as tomorrow,” Zlotnik said.
About 100,000 people ride OCTA buses each day, he added.
Zlotnik encouraged the public to check OCTA’s website for updates if a service shutdown does take place.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.