San Jose’s VTA, union draft potential agreement for wage increases
A VTA light rail train in Mountain View. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    VTA and its largest union don’t often see eye to eye, but they have cautiously agreed to wage increases and a bonus for roughly 1,500 bus and light rail operators, mechanics and other workers.

    Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 struck a tentative agreement with VTA on Dec. 22 to establish a 10% pay raise for ATU members over the next three years. It would also grant each ATU member a one-time $3,500 “appreciation bonus.”

    John Courtney, president of ATU Local 265, confirmed his union has a tentative agreement with VTA, but told San José Spotlight it isn’t settled.

    “This tentative agreement is not considered finalized until ratified by ATU 265 members and the VTA board of directors,” Courtney said.

    He did not say when the ratification vote will occur, but an ATU member at VTA told San José Spotlight the vote will happen next week. The worker, who asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation, said the agreement does not change the language of ATU’s existing contract.

    The tentative agreement, which will cover March 7, 2022 through March 3, 2025, was announced well before the current agreement expires in September 2022.

    VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight the parties have agreed not to negotiate the deal in the media.

    Circumstances pushed the dialogue

    Things have been rocky between VTA and ATU for most of 2021. VTA has been under pressure to improve ridership to offset severe financial losses projected over the next decade. That has sometimes placed VTA in conflict with ATU, which wants the agency to prioritize the safety of drivers. Earlier this year, ATU leaders complained VTA was not doing enough to enforce federal mask mandates on buses to protect drivers from COVID-19. Courtney blamed an uptick in positive cases on the agency’s decision to resume fare collection and front-door boarding on buses.

    The appreciation bonus is new and appears to address the unprecedented strain placed on transit employees this year. In May, a disgruntled employee killed nine workers—eight of them ATU members—and himself. VTA responded to the shooting by shutting down the Guadalupe light rail yard for three months. Only recently has VTA restored full service.

    Relations between the transit agency and ATU soured in the weeks and months after the shooting. Courtney, who survived the May attack, has previously said the agency failed to offer adequate resources to ATU members battling with depression and PTSD after the shooting, and complained about the workers’ compensation administrator.

    The situation reached a boiling point in August when Henry Gonzales, an ATU board member and paint and body worker, died by suicide after returning to the rail yard. ATU International President John Costa blamed VTA for Gonzales’ death and accused the public transit agency of imposing bureaucratic hurdles that made it difficult for members to access mental health care. VTA fired back and demanded union leaders stop making false accusations.

    Transit advocates are pleased that even a tentative agreement has been reached well ahead of the September expiration date. It took almost a year for ATU and VTA to finalize the 2019-22 agreement, said Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and San José Spotlight columnist. During this interim period, VTA couldn’t hire new workers, existing employees didn’t get wage increases and transit service suffered.

    “It was really painful for everybody,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “Everybody was stretched really thin, and riders were really upset.”

    The 2019-22 agreement stipulated a net 9% wage increase for ATU members over the three-year period. Assuming the new agreement is ratified in January, Mallon said the VTA board of directors will probably vote on it in February.

    “I think it’s a really good sign they were able to work something out,” Mallon said, noting the agency’s financial woes have made things like hazard pay and bonuses a challenging topic to address.

    VTA has contracts with three other unions that expire in 2022: AFSCME Local 101, SEIU Local 521 and TAEA Local 21. SEIU, which represents the second largest number of VTA workers after ATU, has a contract that expires on Jan. 1. Representatives did not immediately respond to request for comment.

    The two other unions—AFSCME and TAEA—have contracts that expire in June. Stanley Young, representative and organizer for IFPTE Local 21, which includes TAEA, said his union won’t negotiate on its new contract until spring or early summer of 2022. A representative for AFSCME, which represents roughly 200 VTA workers, did not respond to a request for comment.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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