Bus drivers talk unionization | AspenTimes.com

Bus drivers talk unionization

John Colson

Local bus drivers, who unionized six years ago and then deunionized, are thinking about reunionizing by affiliating with the Amalgamated Transit Union in Washington, D.C.Drivers for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which operates bus routes between Aspen and Rifle, voted to join the union in 2000, and then voted to get rid of the union in 2003 after an anti-union driver called for a special election on the subject. Union backers say many of their supporters were out of town for the election, which they claim undercut the pro-union vote and brought an end to the union’s role in RFTA.According to drivers Jim Herrel and Tim Honan, who are spearheading the unionization effort, signature cards have been distributed among the more than 100 active drivers, and approximately 40 have come back in favor of holding a union vote. Under Colorado law, which requires support from a minimum 30 percent of drivers, organizers have enough to mandate the election, Honan said.Herrel said the signature campaign probably will continue through the end of September to ensure the gathering of enough signatures.Herrel, who has been a driver for almost five years, said he is seeking union representation because “our wages have been effectively frozen for the last few years.” Plus, he said, management is writing up new job descriptions, and the drivers want to have some input into that process.In addition, Honan said, the company has been chronically short of drivers, which puts overtime pressure on those doing the work.RFTA chief Dan Blankenship said he is aware union organizing activity is going on at the bus barn, and said that it is “presumably because of pay.”He confirmed that the RFTA management is in the midst of a re-evaluation of the agency’s salary and payroll policies and its management plan, but added, “What we’re doing isn’t because of that [the union activity]. It was just a response to turnover.”Blankenship said RFTA lost 14 employees after the winter of 2005-06 and barely managed to staff up to its summertime minimum of about 110 drivers. He said the agency is short of mechanics – with 17, compared to the optimal number of 24. Management is worried about having enough drivers to keep the buses rolling in the coming high season.He said he recognizes drivers’ rights to unionize and their unhappiness over the effect of staff shortfalls on each employee’s quality of life.”We would prefer to not see a union at RFTA again,” Blankenship said, arguing that the employees should get the best wages and benefits package possible given the agency’s financial constraints as a quasi-public, tax-supported institution. But, he acknowledged, “We can’t really get involved. They [the drivers] have to follow their hearts and conscience.”Honan, who once was a union organizer among longshoremen on the waterfront at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, has driven for RFTA for nearly two years. “I believe the reason [for the union organizing] is not so much that RFTA is doing a bad job,” Honan said. He said there are so many changes afoot in the agency that a union is necessary to protect the work force. Plus, he said, the lack of organized labor in the valley in general is something he finds “amazing” and feels should be confronted.The organizing, he said, is a way to “kind of, I guess, exercise our viewpoints in a larger forum.”While Herrel was hopeful that a union election could take place as early as December, Honan was not so optimistic: “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to say.”The ATU is an international union, operating in the U.S. and in Canada. It claims, on its website, 180,000 members in 270 locales, in 46 states, including Colorado and nine provinces.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com