Aspen-area bus drivers voting on whether to join transit union |

Aspen-area bus drivers voting on whether to join transit union

A Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus picks up passengers earlier this winter at the remodeled stop at the park-and-ride in Basalt. Some drivers say the agency is investing in infrastructure but not its workers.
Aspen Times file photo |

Drivers in the Roaring Fork Valley’s public bus system are voting this month on whether to join the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Ballots were mailed Friday to 115 full-time, year-round drivers with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority by the Colorado Division of Labor, according to Ed Cortez, a driver for the past two-and-a-half years and chairman of the organizing committee for the drivers. The ballots are scheduled to be counted Feb. 27 by labor division officials. If the majority approves unionization, the drivers will be represented in collective bargaining in negotiations with RFTA management.

About 63 or 64 percent of the drivers formally indicated in December they would be interested in unionization, Cortez said. The labor division needed to know that at least 30 percent of drivers were interested before an election was held. Cortez said he wanted to collect cards of interest from at least 60 percent.

“I’m cautiously optimistic of success,” he said.

A primary issue is pay, according to driver Kevin Stephenson, a driver since 2012 who also served in other positions with RFTA.

“There is a certain amount of anger or angst that while services have been drastically improved, the drivers that pilot those buses are having trouble paying their bills,” Stephenson said.

RFTA completed a $45 million expansion in September 2013 that included new buses, several new bus stops, parking lots and infrastructure that gives buses a priority signal at traffic lights.

Starting pay for drivers was increased from $17.22 to $18 in November. Drivers who had been with RFTA for at least one year got a 50 cent per-hour raise. They also are eligible for a merit bonus during a review on the anniversary of when they were hired.

Stephenson said many drivers feel the pay isn’t high enough. RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said the agency must use objective factors to establish pay scales. RFTA uses salary surveys collected by the Mountain States Employers’ Council, he said.

“I think we’re competitive,” Blankenship said, referring to RFTA’s standing in the transit industry pay scale and the overall Aspen-area labor market. RFTA had to hire a lot of drivers for this winter and is now fully staffed, he said. That wouldn’t happen in this improving economy if the pay wasn’t attractive, according to Blankenship.

Stephenson said he feels the starting pay should be $20 with regular opportunities for advancement, given the cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley. The organizing committee’s research indicated RFTA drivers have been given raises only three times in 11 years, excluding the possible merit bonuses, he said.

Stephenson labeled himself a “conservative, Christian Republican” and the type of person who normally wouldn’t be supportive of a union. In this case, he said, it’s the only way he believes drivers will be treated fairly.

“Unless there is a union looking over their shoulder, they’re not interested in wage equity,” he said. He noted that unions were founded in the early 20th century because of 12 to 14 hour days, child labor, and other issues. “In my way of thinking, RFTA abuses its drivers,” Stephenson said.

Blankenship countered that drivers receive health insurance. RFTA pays the bulk of the coverage for the employees. Workers also get a bus pass and a ski or health pass as part of their perks.

He said RFTA went a route that many employers took during the recession by freezing wages in 2010 and 2011. There was a wage increase in 2012 and there were possible merit bonuses of 3 percent in 2012 and 2013 and 4 percent in 2014.

Blankenship said he understands the drivers only want to improve their plight, and he’s not taking the effort to join a union personally.

“I think we could all use more money to live on,” he said.

If the drivers vote to approve the union, RFTA management will work cooperatively with representatives during collective bargaining, just as it has done in the past, he said. Blankenship noted that many transit organizations are unionized.

“I think RFTA overall is an anomaly in the transportation industry,” he said.

RFTA drivers voted down joining a union in 1998, according to Blankenship. They reversed the vote in 2000 and joined the Amalgamated Transit Union, based in Washington, D.C., but voted against recertification in 2002. There was discussion among drivers of forcing another vote in 2006 but it didn’t materialize.

Cortez said the organizing committee was formed about six months ago and he was appointed chairman because of his success running political campaigns. He was a longtime Carbondale councilman. Ironically, Cortez also was a member of RFTA’s board of directors for six years. The board is comprised of elected officials from member towns and counties.

If the drivers vote to join the union, the organizers will circulate a survey among them to determine top concerns. That will help guide collective bargaining with RFTA management, Cortez said.

“Wages are important, and they will be a focal point of the negotiations,” he said. Other potential issues are parts of the insurance coverage and scheduling.

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