Drivers contend union could strengthen Aspen-area bus system
Two public-bus drivers who helped organize a vote on joining a union said Monday their effort is intended to strengthen the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority rather than create confrontation.
Ed Cortez, a bus driver who was selected by other drivers to head a committee organizing the vote, said raising pay for drivers could help ease the turnover RFTA experiences among its veteran drivers. Between 35 and 40 percent of RFTA’s full-time driving positions turn over each year, Cortez said. Part of that is due to drivers being unable to make a financially viable career out of the posts, he said.
Cortez said he has seen the turnover firsthand. He was “dead last” among drivers in seniority when he started with the agency 2½ years ago. He has since moved up from 139 to 81 in the pecking order.
RFTA incurs high expenses from hiring and training new drivers every year, and losing a veteran presence hurts the agency’s ability to deliver services, Cortez said. There have been 57 separate accidents involving buses since early December, according to Cortez and Tim Honan, another driver on the organizing committee. Not all of those accidents were the fault of RFTA drivers.
RFTA’s current 115 full-time, year-round drivers are participating in a mail-in election on whether to join the Amalgamated Transit Union based in Washington, D.C. The Colorado Division of Labor will count ballots Feb. 27.
Cortez said the issue is about more than pay. Drivers want to help guide RFTA’s direction and make sure it is operating as efficiently as possible, according to Cortez.
“RFTA drivers are more than bus drivers,” he said. “They are stakeholders and taxpayers.”
Cortez was selected to head the organizing committee because of his political experience. He was elected to two four-year terms on the Carbondale Town Council and he served six years on the RFTA board of directors. He said he knows from experience that RFTA’s board is “insulated” from issues facing drivers and other management direction.
Honan said RFTA drivers and many employees throughout the Roaring Fork Valley are treated as numbers and business assets rather than people.
“Labor is a commodity,” he said. “We’re trying to move it from a commodity to a special interest.”
The organizers of the unionization effort hope the vote is affirmative so they can undertake collective bargaining on pay and other issues. It’s important for RFTA’s drivers to have a unified voice when management and the board are determining how to spend RFTA’s funds.
RFTA has recently completed a $45 million expansion that included new buses, better bus stops, additional parking and various infrastructure upgrades. A federal grant paid for more than half of the project, but a regional sales tax covered some of the capital improvement and continues to cover operations.
RFTA also is considering a nearly $2 million investment in a solar farm to cover some of its energy consumption at facilities, and it has pledged $500,000 to help build a pedestrian underpass of Highway 82 in Basalt. Honan said the drivers need to be in a position to compete with other special interests for those funds without being adversarial.
Honan and Cortez said RFTA’s full-time, year-round drivers are a diverse group. About 51 percent are white males and 25 percent are Hispanic males. The remaining 24 percent are females. Many drivers had other careers derailed during the recession. Now that the Roaring Fork Valley is experiencing robust growth again, the drivers’ organizing committee wants to make sure the drivers receive a living wage for their work.
RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said last week that a wage survey by the Mountain States Employers’ Council indicated RFTA is competitive within the transit agency and as a Roaring Fork Valley employer on pay. Beginning full-time, year-round drivers start at $18 per hour.
Honan and Cortez said the flaw in relying on that type of survey is it doesn’t take into account the high cost of housing and other living expenses in the Aspen area.
Honan said that’s a problem that extends beyond public-bus drivers. “This valley — as Democratic as it is — everybody wants to keep their money,” he said.
Lots of well-off people fight for causes to save the world, Honan continued, but the working class is struggling to survive at their level of pay.
“We have lots of environmental groups but we have no labor groups — zero,” he said.
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