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Home > Featured > Union says RTC bus drivers, workers one step closer to striking

Union says RTC bus drivers, workers one step closer to striking

By Jeri Chadwell
An RTC hybrid bus.

There are two weeks left for negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between the union representing Regional Transportation Commission bus drivers and workers and the company contracted to operate the buses.

Things aren’t going well. The end result could be a strike if a deal is not made by the June 30 deadline. The last time a strike happened was in 2002.

The Northern Nevada Central Labor Council announced Monday it had unanimously passed a strike sanction resolution against the for-profit operator of RTC’s buses, multinational company Keolis North America. The vote was taken on June 9. This type of resolution doesn’t mean a strike is imminent, but it is a procedural step in that direction.

President of the Teamsters Local 533 union Gary Watson said there have been two negotiation sessions and both have stalled.

“The employer, essentially, is looking to gut the collective bargaining agreement … and that’s all just so they can send more profits back to corporate off of the Washoe County taxpayers,” Watson said.

“The current system is demonstrably wasteful and unaccountable.”

He said the union had waited as long as possible prior to seeking the strike sanction.

Central Labor Council President Mike Pilcher said that Keolis Transit’s current contract proposal includes dissolving the workers’ health care trust fund and reducing their pay and benefits.

“The bus operators have given their all for the community and the contractor throughout the pandemic,” Pilcher said.

Watson said Keolis has indicated that it would replace the health care trust fund with employer provided health insurance. This wouldn’t be beneficial to the union’s members, he said, as a part of the advantage of the trust is that retirees from the union get to keep those benefits.

Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus and former Sparks City Council member John Mayer, neither of whom are on the RTC board, have both advocated for ending four decades of hiring for-profit contractors like Keolis. Some officials and union representatives would like to instead see transit system workers become RTC employees.

Watson agreed.

“They should be getting rid of the middleman,” he said. “In our opinion, that’s going to save the taxpayers money, too. And it’s going to be a better way for the RTC to operate the system because they’re going to be hands-on instead of hands-off and stop passing the buck to these contractors.”

Watson said the five elected officials on the RTC board are acting in concert with Keolis to endanger the public and break the union. He added that he believes RTC has not been charging Keolis liquidated damages for which it’s eligible when the company fails to operate under the conditions of its contract.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County is comprised of Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson, Washoe County Commissioners Vaughn Hartung and Bob Lucey, Reno City Council members Oscar Delgado and Neoma Jardon. Jardon is the current board chair.

Union members protested against Keolis outside a Regional Transportation Commission meeting May 21, 2021 in Reno, Nev.
Union members protested against Keolis outside a Regional Transportation Commission meeting May 21, 2021 in Reno, Nev. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

“The current system is demonstrably wasteful and unaccountable,” Watson said.

The stalling contract negotiations are only the latest in a long list of problems between the Teamsters Local 533 and Keolis that have resulted in murmurings about strikes and actual lawsuits filed in federal court. A recent lawsuit alleges that Keolis has failed to pay more than $50,000 into the employees’ health care fund.

According to a statement from union spokespersons, “The union has filed 37 National Labor Relations Board charges of illegal and unfair labor practices and has 38 binding arbitrations pending, some over a year old. Keolis has not only delayed but has personally threatened federal arbitrators after they have been selected. Local 533 also has two additional legal filings pending in federal court. Proceedings begin Aug. 17.”

If contract negotiations fail, a vote in favor by the majority of the union members would have to take place prior to a strike. 

This Is Reno reached out to Council member Jardon and Keolis for comment but did not receive any prior to the publication of this story.

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