Michael Ake, regional vice president of operations for Keolis North America, was in town Wednesday afternoon and met with a small pool of media at a location that was requested to be kept private to avoid the possibility of strikers showing up there.
Keolis is a France-based company whose subsidiary, Keolis North America, has held a contract with the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) to operate public transit buses in Washoe County for a little more than two years.
Longtime workers say of all RTC contractors, Keolis has been the worst. Numerous allegations, complaints and salvos issued to the news media have been made by the union for more than a year.
Ake had reportedly come to Reno for a meeting with leadership from the RTC and the Teamsters Local 533 union, whose drivers operate RTC buses and have been on strike for 10 days.
That meeting never took place.
Some 200 Teamsters members have been striking for more than a week, and more than 25 bus routes in the valley—normally used by some 20,000 people a day—have largely been idle. The RTC reported this week that only three bus routes and a line departing twice daily between Reno and Carson City—are operating.
Teamsters leadership has alleged that Keolis attempted to gut the union’s private health care trust during collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. Keolis leadership has claimed that the Teamsters haven’t even been willing to negotiate. Tensions between the union and Keolis have been building throughout the pandemic, and the union bosses have been threatening a “Hot August strike” since May.
The meeting that never happened was allegedly brokered by a “third party”—though it would not have been a bargaining agreement meeting, Ake said, as he’s not a part of the bargaining team for Keolis.
Rumor had it Tuesday that Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve was attempting to arrange a meeting between Keolis, the Teamsters and RTC officials.
RTC officials, after publication of the story, said they had no intention of being a part of the meeting.
Schieve and city officials have not responded to multiple media requests from This Is Reno and other local media outlets to confirm the mayor’s attempt to get involved parties to sit down for discussions.
Even had the meeting taken place, it would not have furthered negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement between the Teamsters and Keolis. Its alleged aim was to get the parties to agree to return to the bargaining table. The CBA between Keolis and the union expired on June 30.
Getting to the negotiating table
Ake told members of the media that Teamsters President Gary Watson is the person solely responsible for the strike.
“This strike helps no one except one person,” Ake said. “Everyone suffers in a strike—the employees, the passengers, the company, the RTC. Everybody suffers in a strike, except the union president.”
Ake said he believes Watson does not want to return to the bargaining table. He said Watson wants the RTC to take over transit operations in-house and cut Keolis out of the equation.
RTC Director Bill Thomas said at a recent meeting that is not going to happen.
Ake said according to Keolis’ contract with the RTC, the company must keep operating costs within certain limits. If the union were dealing directly with RTC, its bargaining unit could, ostensibly, negotiate for different benefits or pay.
That, Ake claimed, is Watson’s goal.
“My employees are suffering. The people that need transit in Reno are suffering. The only person not suffering is the union president that called the strike.”
“I honestly believe we could have settled this strike yesterday if he’d have shown up at the meeting that he said he’d show up to,” Ake said. “We can’t settle anything unless he sits down at the table to talk to us. And I’m absolutely confident that we can settle this. We negotiate collective bargaining agreements all over the country dozens of times a year. We’ve got five different CBA negotiations going on right now in different parts of the country. We always reach an agreement.”
Ake said union leadership showed up only briefly to two of four bargaining days earlier in the summer and stormed out of both. On July 26, union leadership showed up for another day of bargaining, and Ake said that day was reportedly fairly productive before things fell apart.
“It was a relatively productive session,” he said. “It lasted all day long like we’d planned. We tentatively agreed on several different articles and then offered 10 more days [for negotiations]—10 more days—directly to the employee representative there, and they flatly refused. They will not come back to the table and negotiate with us.”
“My employees are suffering”
Ake denied Keolis was attempting to do away with the union’s health care trust. He called the health care plan a “Cadillac plan” and said the company simply wanted to offer a pared down, less costly plan for younger, healthier employees who might not have families or need such costly coverage. That plan would have been offered in addition to the Teamsters’ trust plan. Ake said Keolis negotiators dropped the idea of a second option because it was opposed by the union.
Ake also refuted Watson’s claims that Keolis negotiators have engaged in regressive bargaining.
Watson said the company attempted to cut its monthly per-employee contribution to the health care trust from $737 to $711. Ake said this was untrue. He said documents exchanged between the union and Keolis cited $711 because they were taken from CBA documents drawn up when MV Transportation still operated RTC buses.
Keolis had to take over the CBA agreed to by MV Transportation until its expiration date on June 30 of this year—but Ake said Keolis has never contributed only $711 per month and has never intended to.
“It’s completely untrue,” Ake said. “Unequivocally, it is not true. The language in the old collective bargaining agreement had a number in it. We exchanged proposals with the old language that had that number in it, and the union president is claiming that because of that we’re regressively bargaining. There’s absolutely no way that I could hire employees in this market without offering a comprehensive benefit plan, including medical benefits and wages.”
Watson has said the union will return to the bargaining table when Keolis agrees to pay $752 per month into the health care trust. Ake said Keolis already has agreed to this amount.
“Honestly, the union president is just less than truthful sometimes,” Ake said. “He really does not want to sit at the table and negotiate. This particular strike is about one individual… My employees are suffering. The people that need transit in Reno are suffering. The only person not suffering is the union president that called the strike.”
Striking bus drivers have received letters from Keolis explaining that they may permanently lose their positions if they’re replaced with new hires while on the picket lines.
Ake said he doesn’t want to see that happen but said that the company feels it’s necessary for employees to know it’s a possibility. He said the company sends several communications per week to the strikers to keep them informed of what’s happening between it and the union.
“We’ve actually shared the information with our employees that, even though they’re on strike, they’re still eligible for our employee assistance program,” Ake said. “Some of them have felt intimidated and threatened, and we want them to be able to access whatever mental health needs they might have—or other medical needs they may have—so we have an employee assistance program that offers free counseling, free advice, free legal aid, a bunch of services outside a normal medical plan.”
Keolis would like three to six months to work out a new bargaining agreement, which Ake said is standard. He said the company is willing to pay a per-Teamster contribution of $752 per month into the health care trust during that time. This would need to be done under an extension of the language in the existing, expired CBA with the union.
“I absolutely have agreed to the health care plan that he proposed,” Ake said. “What I did not agree to was to allow him to continue to hold strikes whenever he wanted to. As part of collective bargaining negotiations, you generally extend the previous agreement that has ‘no strike’ and ‘no lockout’ language in it. Or you write an MOU—a memorandum of understanding—that the terms and conditions will be honored, including wages, benefits, no strike, no lockout. But he’s continually refused to do that. And he’s made public statements that he intends to negotiate by strike.”
Health care, a contract and a pony, too
In response to Ake’s assertion that Keolis has already agreed to the $752 per month contribution to the Teamsters’ health care trust while negotiations are underway, Union President Gary Watson said, “If what Mike Ake says is true, then he should sign the tentative agreement on health care and send it to me. As of today’s date, at 2:33 p.m. today, I have not heard from Mike Ake, and he has not signed the tentative agreement.”
Watson said he will not sign an MOU or any other tentative proposal that includes language specifying that there will be no strikes or lockouts during negotiations. He said signing the tentative health care proposal without those conditions would bring the union back to the table and that no further strikes would happen provided the Teamsters feel Keolis is bargaining in good faith.
He further said the proposal for $711 a month per employee in contributions to the health care trust was not a mistake made by Keolis.
“That was his proposal. And regarding the comment that the Teamsters 533 wants RTC to fire Keolis and that’s why we’re staying out still, I think that’s an inaccurate statement that he’s claiming,” Watson said.
In response to Keolis’ desire to have the expired CBA extended or an MOU signed ensuring its existing conditions continue, without strikes, during negotiations, Watson said, “and I want a pony.”
Watson said there was every opportunity for Keolis to bargain with the union ahead of its expiration.
“I sent them notice in February of this year to start bargaining the contract,” Watson said. “I didn’t get a response until May. So, we’re not interested in an extension agreement with Keolis Transit.”
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that RTC officials said they had no intention of being a part of the meeting this week brokered by a third party.
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.