Transit workers reach an agreement

Connecticut commuters can finally breathe a sigh of relief: the wheels on the buses will keep going round.

After months of failed negotiations between CT Transit workers and their employers, bus drivers and maintenance personnel averted a strike when they ratified a labor contract that will cover 750 of the company’s employees on Jan. 16. CT Transit — a state-owned bus system, which serves the areas around Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford — agreed to raise wages by 6.5 percent over the next three years in exchange for requiring employees to contribute to the cost of medical coverage. But union representatives were not entirely satisfied with the deal.

“Paying for the health benefits was a huge concession,” said Ralph Buccitti, the president of Local 281, New Haven’s chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “The members are not 100 percent happy about it, but given the times, you’ve got to maintain what you have,” he said.

Union workers, he said, currently contribute $5 per week to their healthcare plans. But by the end of the arrangement, transit workers will have to pay $20 per week towards his or her premium.

“Now, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of money,” Buccitti said, “but it starts to add up. The vote passed only by a very small margin and our members did not take the negotiations lightly.”

The process leading up to the agreement did not go smoothly. David A. Lee, CT Transit’s general manager, said that another impasse in the negotiations could have resulted in a strike as early as January 31. The parties had originally agreed with reservations on a contract that was introduced to the Amalgamated Transit Union on Dec. 23 for ratification. Despite the unanimous recommendation of the union’s bargaining committee to ratify the contract, Lee said, a majority of union members still voted no.

“After some minor tweaking,” Lee said, “the tentative agreement was again presented to members for a vote on Jan. 16, which passed. However, it is extremely unusual for union members to defy the recommendation of their leadership by failing to ratify a tentative agreement.”

The new contract is for a 33-month period from July 1, 2010 through March 31, 2013, Lee added. Wage increases for all workers will be broken up into three divisions: 2 percent effective July 1, 2010, 2 percent on May 1, 2011, and 2.5 percent on May 1, 2012. The former salary for a bus driver with 48 months service, for example, was $24.00. Now, because of the deal’s retroactive increase, these “top operators’” hourly wages come out to $24.48. Similarly, maintenance workers, such as cleaners, will see their pay rise from a max rate of about $16.00 to $16.30.

Five locals interviewed at bus stops around New Haven said they were happy that the deal passed, though one expressed concern over how wage increases for public-sector workers would affect their taxes.

“It’s about time that the workers started paying for their health insurance like the rest of us,” said Joseph Todd, who works in downtown New Haven. “They already get plenty of benefits as it is, and we end up paying for them in addition to ourselves, which isn’t fair.”

“I’m just glad the buses are going to keep running,” said Gabriela Rodriguez, a nurse at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. “I wouldn’t be able to get to my job without them, and who can afford to miss a day of work in this economy?”

Even though they were not entirely happy with the deal, Buccitti said, the union members ultimately decided it would be more sensible to accept the contract than to strike.

“Striking would have hurt the people who depend the most on public transportation, like students, nurses, parents and the working poor,” he said, “The consideration we made was not to hurt the public.”

CT Transit’s New Haven Division is the second largest bus transportation system in the state.

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