Transit employees working for the Regional Transportation Commission’s (RTC) contract bus operator, Keolis North America, may end up going on strike.
The announcement came after collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations between the multinational company and the Teamsters Local 533 union were not completed prior to the June 30 expiration of the current contract.
Teamster representative Andrew Barbano announced the possible strike on his Nevada Labor website. He referred to it as “Hot August Strike 2.0.”
Should a strike happen, it would be the first for transit employees in the region in nearly two decades.
Keolis has accused the union of not negotiating in good faith, saying union representatives cut the first two negotiation meetings short and canceled the other two scheduled meetings.
Mike Ake, regional vice president of operations for Keolis, eastern region, said, “Our team showed up. On the first day, the union team led by the union team came in and spent about a little over an hour. Then they left.
“The second day, they spent less time than that and left. Then they cancelled the third and fourth day. We’ve been in constant contact, [to] the effect of daily emails and letters asking them to send a date so we can sit down. And they’ve refused to set a date.”
The company has also said union President Gary Watson refused an offer to have a federal mediator facilitate negotiations.
Teamsters Local 533 is accusing Keolis of attempting to bust the union and gut its members’ health care benefits and pay.
Watson told This Is Reno last month that Keolis had indicated it would replace the health care trust fund with employer provided health insurance. He said this would not benefit the union members because a part of the advantage of the trustee is retirees’ ability to keep getting those benefits.
Ake said this is not true.
“Currently, the employee medical coverage is on a Teamsters plan, and we will continue to offer the Teamsters’ plan,” he said. “We can’t break up their trust. It’s not ours.”
He said the company wants to offer additional options for employees, especially younger employees who may not need or want the coverage offered through the trust.
“We’ve got some employees that due to youth or maybe lack of a family don’t need to spend quite so much, so we’re going to just offer some company options as well. But the current medical plan, as it exists today, will still be offered for those who want it,” Ake said.
As to pay, Ake said the latest offer in the failed contract negotiations included a 3% pay raise effectively immediately and a 3% increase next year as well.
“No proposal has ever been made by us to reduce anybody’s wages,” he said. “It’s difficult enough in the Reno community to hire. You guys are booming out there. I’m competing against Tesla right now for drivers, so that’s completely false.”
A long list of disputes
The failed contract negotiations are only the latest in a long list of problems between the union 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 in question.
The union also filed suit against Keolis last year over unsafe working conditions, alleging that Keolis refused to mandate COVID-19 safety protocols and barred bus drivers from refusing riders without masks.
Some have called for putting an end to four decades of RTC partnering with for-profit contractors like Keolis, including Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus and former Sparks City Council member John Mayer—neither of whom are on the RTC board. Some officials and union representatives would like to instead see transit system workers become RTC employees.
“The last thing I want is anybody to show up to a bus stop in the heat you guys are experiencing and not get a ride.”-MIKE AKE, regional vice president of operations for Keolis
Watson has agreed with this.
“They should be getting rid of the middleman,” he told This Is Reno in June. “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.”
For now, the situation remains in a stalemate holding pattern.
Ake said it’s not at all unusual for a union to take a strike vote during CBA negotiations, and it doesn’t mean a strike is imminent. Should one happen, he said, Keolis is working on plans to mitigate the impact for residents who rely on public transportation.
He said plans have been being worked out since the union has refused to extend the current contract until such a time as a new one is agreed upon.
“They’ve refused to extend,” Ake said. “So, specifically what we’ve done is set up a few contingency plans to make sure the information gets out to the riders and the public. The last thing I want is anybody to show up to a bus stop in the heat you guys are experiencing and not get a ride. So, the main thing we’ll be doing is beefing up our communications network and providing actual supervisors at major bus stops to help explain what’s going on and when the next bus should arrive, that kind of thing.”
Ake said he’s also still certain an agreement can be made.
“I just want the union president to show up,” he said. “Give me a date. We will be there and get a deal done—because I know we’ll get a deal done. All of our transit operations all over the U.S. and the world are unionized … We negotiate multiple CBAs every year, and we always reach an agreement. And I know we can in this case, if they’ll just sit down and talk to us—or give us an extension until they can sit down and talk to us.”
This Is Reno reached out to Watson and the union’s spokesperson. We were informed that, due to the holiday weekend, we would not be receiving comment.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.