COTA went 25 years without a strike before work stopped for three days in 2012 during the authority's busiest week — the one that includes July 3, when Red, White and Boom brings hundreds of thousands of people Downtown.
Work stoppages were more common early-on. Between 1976 and 1986, union workers went on strike at least four times, according to Dispatch archives. Snead said locals used to joke that COTA workers went on strike every year during deer-gun season to go hunting.
Former Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Bill Habig said COTA's financial problems contributed to a contentious relationship with union workers.
"COTA didn't have the kind of resources the union wanted wages to reflect," he said.
Simonetta said the board directed him to fight back against the union when he took over as the agency's head in 1985. Between November 1986 and February 1987, work stopped for a total of 65 days.
"That was difficult because, when a community is without its transit operation, people start to figure out that they may not need the transit system as badly as they thought they did," he said.
Union workers fought for issues big and small, Snead said. They wanted fair wages but also thought they should be allowed to wear large bow ties, grow out beards and be paid during blizzards when bus service was shut down.
"We didn't get everything we wanted," he said. "(But) the union and management had great relationships."
When Ginny Barry started answering phones and recording COTA board meeting minutes in 1976, bus drivers still were looking for a red dot in the window of a W. Long Street office during the summer. That was the signal to turn on the air conditioning, if their bus had an air conditioner.
Barry said most operators had to carry a quarter to make a pay-phone call when buses couldn't communicate via radio. The digital signs that now show which route a bus is travelling used to be manual, requiring drivers to roll them over, and drivers had to yell out stops.
In the past 40 years, COTA has ditched many of the outdated technologies and quirks that Barry remembers from her early days with the authority.
Today, when a bus driver is running late, an on-board computer says so. Destination signs are changed within minutes with a computer hookup.
"Now, it's all computerized," said Barry, who is COTA's director of service analysis and scheduling.
Buses were unequipped for wheelchairs until 1991, Barry said. And if a passenger wanted to pay with a dollar bill instead of a coin, the operator had to fold it into the size of a quarter and use a sticky tab to keep it folded while depositing it in the fare box. No change was given, Barry said.
Drivers also had to memorize their routes because they did not have computers to remind them about turns.
"They were expected to know every turn on their own," she said.
And compared with bus stops today, some of which have heat, most COTA stops didn't even have shelters in the early days, Snead said. "Back when I started, your passengers are out in the rain and snow and everything; completely different."