A dispute between the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and a union for bus drivers got emotional Thursday when a pay dispute could not be solved.
Ed Cortez, president and business agent for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774, read a fiery statement at the RFTA board of directors’ meeting that accused the organization of creating a division with the drivers.
“The main reason RFTA drivers are unionized is to defend themselves. When a company grows so big, they forget their workers and seem to hold them in the lowest of esteem,” Cortez said. “It is unfortunate that RFTA has created this division.”
RFTA board members were quick to defend CEO Dan Blankenship and his staff. Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt gave a tearful reply that credited Blankenship for his compassion for all people involved with RFTA, including customers.
“I appreciate that there are two sides to every issue, but I have to disagree that Dan Blankenship or the leadership of this company treats employees with the lowest esteem,” Whitsitt said. “That I know not to be true.”
The drivers’ union and RFTA negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement in June for 2019 through 2021. That agreement included a pay scale based on years of service. As implementation of the new agreement moved closer, the union realized it had a disagreement with RFTA management over interpretation of the pay scale. The union wants years of service credited in a way that is quicker than RFTA’s method.
The union filed a grievance on or about Jan. 10. RFTA’s grievance committee rejected the grievance on or about Feb. 8.
At Thursday’s regular monthly meeting of the RFTA board, the dispute was discussed in a closed session. Cortez asked the board when it came out of the executive session if it would support the drivers in the dispute. Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board member George Newman responded that no vote was taken in the executive session because it isn’t allowed and that the gist of the board’s discussion was private.
Cortez said he would be forced to read his statement in that case.
“Based on a letter I received denying our grievance, in reference to wage progression, RFTA has chosen not to honor the contract they approved and signed by this board in June of 2018,” he said. “Our union intends to contest this breach legally with all the resources available to us.”
The meeting got momentarily contentious when New Castle Mayor and RFTA board chairman Art Riddile cut off Cortez after about 5½ minutes. Public comment is only allowed for three minutes, he noted. Cortez kept talking, saying the board needed to understand the union’s position.
“You are the body that decides financial and legal issues for RFTA and I am here today trying to stave off potential legal proceedings while there is still time,” Cortez said.
After he was cut off, Glenwood Springs Councilman and RFTA board member Jonathan Godes said he didn’t think the best way for Cortez to represent the drivers was by making legal threats.
Cortez said after the meeting that the union would pursue the next step as spelled out in the collective bargaining unit. It will file a notice with RFTA that it wants to pursue arbitration. The parties will notify the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which will implement a system to appoint an arbitrator.
“The next step would be to take it away from RFTA in regards to rendering a decision,” Blankenship said after the meeting. The process could take anywhere from two to five months, he estimated.
Blankenship said his view is the dispute should be resolved “as expediently and amicably as possible.” There is a disagreement over what was negotiated, he said. RFTA hasn’t decided to ignore the contract. Its bargaining team was “surprised” when the union articulated its interpretation of the pay scale issue, he said.
Blankenship also said management doesn’t hold the drivers in low esteem.
“We value the drivers a lot,” he said.
RFTA negotiators thought they reached an agreement that progressed drivers into higher pay scales in a fair and equitable way that addressed the union’s concerns, according to Blankenship. RFTA also strives to avoid large increases in co-pays and keep coverage for dependants as low as possible on employees’ health insurance, he said.
“Overall, I feel like we had a great working relationship with the union,” Blankenship said.
He said the dispute hasn’t affected operations and all sides have remained “professional.” RFTA management, drivers and all other staff worked well together to pull off service for the Winter X Games in late January, he noted.
“It was all hands on deck,” Blankenship said.
RFTA’s drivers received raises in the first pay period of January in accordance to RFTA’s interpretation of the contract.
“We didn’t hold anything up,” Blankenship said. “We went ahead with what we agreed to.”