Drivers with RFTA certainly deserve a living wage |

Drivers with RFTA certainly deserve a living wage

Aspen Times Daily Editorial

In three and a half weeks, drivers for the Roaring Fork Transit Agency will be voting on whether or not to form a union, the second time such an election has been held in recent memory.

Attempts to form unions are nothing new in this valley. More specifically, failed attempts to form unions are nothing new. In July, 1998, the United Transportation Union failed in its bid to organize the local drivers. In that same year, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 based in Wheat Ridge, Colo., made its second unsuccessful try at unionizing the workers at Aspen’s City Market grocery store.

Unions are not exactly welcomed in Colorado, which is a “right to work state” with labor rules and regulations that union proponents say were written specifically to discourage union activities.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, unions have not had an easy go of it in the past. Not only have unionizing efforts failed at RFTA and City Market, but at the Little Nell Hotel as well.

And the battles prompted by the organizing efforts have spawned their share of controversy, beyond the question of who won and who lost.

During the hotly contested 1998 organizing campaign, RFTA spent $47,000 of taxpayers’ money to hire The American Consulting Group of Los Gatos and Costa Mesa, Calif., which was said by organizers to be an outfit with a clear reputation as a union-buster.

It does not appear that RFTA will pull any union-busting stunts this time around, and that is a welcome turn of events.

Workers have the right to organize into unions without undue harassment or interference from the company involved, and this is particularly true when the company is a public entity such as RFTA. Our tax money should not be used to subvert the rights of any citizens.

Beyond that, formation of a union in the RFTA ranks should not be viewed automatically as something bad, which seems to be the view held by management at the bus agency. Certainly, however, if a union is formed, RFTA is going to find itself facing some hard negotiations, particularly in regard to wages.

The local transportation agency has for years had difficulty recruiting and keeping drivers, and while to some extent that difficulty is the result of the shortage of affordable housing, it is clear that at least some of the blame has to do with wages.

A starting wage of $12 an hour is far short of meeting the cost of living in this valley. And in a valley where clothing-store clerks and counter servers at McDonald’s can earn that much, a skilled bus driver earning that kind of pay has every right to feel slighted.

It is said that truck drivers hauling dirt and gravel around the valley can earn far more than that from the moment they step into the cab of their truck for the very first time, and that is hardly fair. Our bus drivers perform a vital function in this valley. We entrust them daily with the lives of local workers and visiting tourists. We train them to perform their tasks diligently, we ask them to work long hours under extremely difficult conditions, and we ought to pay them a livable wage in return for that hard work and dedication.

Some worry that if the drivers unionize, their wage demands will bust RFTA’s budget and put that irreplaceable agency at risk.

But the plain fact is that we cannot expect drivers to accept difficult working conditions and a substandard wage at the same time. To continue to do so is to ask the drivers to bear the burden of this valley’s economic inconsistencies in a brutal and unacceptable way.

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