Rochester city bus drivers engaged in a yearlong contract dispute with their employer, First Transit, say they are trying to protect future employees.
First Transit, which operates Rochester Public Transit's bus system, has offered drivers a 2 percent cost-of-living wage increase and vowed not to change its benefits package. But the bus drivers say the proposal erodes the current wage scale for employees in their first two years of service.
"Basically, they would take our wage scale and reduce it for the newly hired and for people once they reach their second year — they would get less than they would with the current wage scale," said First Transit driver Terry Sprung, who has been a Rochester city bus driver for almost 18 years.
"In other words, a person hired a year from now would be hired at the same wage as a person hired tomorrow. So, the starting wage wouldn't go up even though the cost of living had," Sprung said.
The approximately 55 bus drivers and dispatchers who belong to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 have rejected three separate tentative agreements between ATU's bargaining committee and First Transit.
The results of the last vote, on Nov. 24, were 92 percent against the contract proposal and 8 percent for it, said Dan Abramowicz, ATU recording secretary and assistant business agent, who works in the union's Minneapolis office.
"And that's because the direction we were going came to a screeching halt after the second vote," he said, adding that union members have subsequently made an offer to give up some of their 2013 back pay if First Transit would leave the entire wage scale alone.
The back pay is to come in the form of retroactive cost-of-living increases workers have gone without this year while their contract is being negotiated, Abramowicz said.
For the third tentative agreement, First Transit said it would take the employees' back pay and leave the wage scale alone for people in their first two years but said new employees would then receive no cost-of-living increases for the duration of the three-year contract.
"And it just didn't sit well with the majority of the members," Abramowicz said. "They felt betrayed."
The drivers and dispatchers have been working under an extended contract since Jan. 1, when their six-month contract with First Transit expired. The current contract renews on a 30-day basis, unless one of the parties chooses to cancel it, First Transit spokeswoman Stephanie Creech said.
Most of the employees moved over to First Transit in July 2012 from the city's previous bus operator, Rochester City Lines.
Rochester City Lines had operated the system for 46 years. But in 2011, the Federal Transit Administration ordered the city to use a competitive bid process to award the service contract, and First Transit won. First Transit's bid was $19.7 million, and Rochester City Line's bid was $21.6 million. Bids from two other companies were $25 million or more.
ATU and its members say when First Transit bid on the contract, which runs until the end of 2016, the company knew Rochester City Lines' employee wage scale and benefits and gave city officials the impression it would maintain that level of compensation.
But Rochester City Council member Bruce Snyder doesn't remember it that way.
"I remember us talking to them about hiring people who currently worked for City Lines. But I guess my impression was that those people wouldn't suffer from changing from City Lines to First Transit. I don't remember a discussion about new hires or future contracts," Snyder said.
In First Transit's proposal to the city, the company stated: "It is First Transit's intention to hire all drivers and staff that meet our hiring standards at the prevailing ATU wage rate and benefit package. ... First Transit believes it is in the city of Rochester's best interest to retain as many of the current employees as possible."
However, there is nothing in the proposal that discusses future contract wages and benefits.