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Business News: Keolis and Washoe RTC closely coordinated responses to bus strikes

By Bob Conrad
Reno Business Weekly

Public records obtained by This Is Reno show Keolis Transit North America and Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission staff worked hand-in-hand responding during three union strikes last year. 

Washoe RTC officials repeatedly said last year, “RTC is not a party in the negotiations between Keolis and the Teamsters Union.” The refrain was repeated often. 

RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas.
RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

“That process is between the employee [Teamsters Local 533] and the employer [Keolis], and we are neither of those,” RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas said during a November 2021 press conference during which he was critical of what he said were misleading tactics and inaccurate statements by union representatives. 

What was not publicly disclosed in statements to the news media is how closely RTC and Keolis worked together in responding to the strikes. Keolis, a multinational company, is the transit services provider contracted with RTC to operate the region’s buses.

RTC’s Executive Director Bill Thomas today said both groups were working in tandem out of necessity.

“Keolis is our contractor,” he said. “The coordination was more about responding to allegations and accusations from the Teamsters, so we had a very close interaction with them … which I don’t think is unusual.”

Records obtained by This Is Reno confirm most media inquiries to Keolis were shared with RTC staff, and vice versa. RTC staff also helped provide and edit press statements for Keolis to give to the news media. Both entities also closely monitored and shared media reports about the strikes. 

An email between RTC and Keolis staff with suggested edits to media talking points.

News and social media closely monitored

The coordination included taking screenshots of social media posts and criticizing those who expressed support for the Teamsters – including the Washoe Democrats and the NAACP. People or statements critical of the Teamsters were celebrated by RTC and Keolis representatives.

Gary Watson with the Teamsters called the coordination a union-busting effort that confirmed what he was saying all along – that both entities “were in cahoots.”

“RTC Washoe was not a silent partner. They were involved every step of the way,” he told This Is Reno.  

Keolis’ hired local PR spokesperson, Rachel Gattuso, took screen captures from the Reno-Sparks Mutual Aid Facebook group when the strikes were being discussed online last fall. She notified RTC and Keolis about what she called “chatter” about the strikes. 

That group was established at the start of the pandemic for people to connect with one another for things such as food, rides and help with any needed tasks. It was recognized in May of 2020 by Governor Steve Sisolak.

Meghan Archambault, founder of Reno-Sparks Mutual Aid Facebook group.

“We are a no-barrier, consensus-based, member-powered mutual aid group operating in Northern Nevada and primarily based out of Reno.” That’s how the group describes itself online. 

Meghan Archambault, the group’s founder, said she was livid when provided with a screen capture where Keolis noted they were monitoring the group during last year’s strikes.

“It’s unnerving to know that our volunteer community aid effort was monitored online as any kind of barometer for public opinion regarding the strike but is unsurprising given longstanding efforts of private enterprise to interfere and stonewall labor efforts,” she told This Is Reno. “For the record, Ms. Gattuso had been a member since March of 2020. She was given the opportunity to own up to taking the screenshots and did not.”

Archambault last week on Twitter demanded Gattuso and Keolis delete the screenshots taken from the mutual aid group. 

“We were contacted by a member of the group saying they felt unsafe with her still being a member so she was recently removed from the group,” she added.

Gattuso said she deleted the screenshots and apologized.

“The Reno Sparks Mutual Aid group has done impressive work and it was heartening to see them rally for riders during the strikes,” she said. “I have deleted screenshots as per the group’s request and apologized. It’s a public relations professional’s purview to apprise clients of conversations wherein they appear to hopefully endear said clients to resolve issues faster. 

“I would never knowingly hurt any group member, but if they feel removing me as a matter of policy assuages fears for the group I respect their decision.”

Archambault said the apology, which was sent by direct message today, is too little, too late. 

“The betrayal of trust was public so the apology should also be public, and this happened nearly a week ago,” she said.

Keolis tried to prevent worker from talking to media

Communications among RTC staff and Keolis also took note of which news articles and social media posts were gaining traction and appeared to belittle tweets posted by Teamsters that did not get shares or support.

Thomas, during the November press conference, said, “I have incredible respect for the frontline workers who have worked during this pandemic to make sure people get to the places they need to get to.”

One of those employees was contacted by the Nevada Independent, which wanted to spend a day with him to capture on video what it’s like to be a transit worker.

“They probably didn’t want any of that story out there, including his issues that he had with Keolis canceling his healthcare for his son.”

When the Independent’s Tim Lenard told RTC’s Lauren Ball who the employee was, Ball searched his name online. It was discovered the individual had been on the picket line supporting his fellow workers. 

RTC and Keolis then moved to get the Independent another source or to delay the story.

“We’re going to try and get Tim [Lenard] on the phone tomorrow – we’re [sic] really concerned about [the employee] being the interview and are going to try suggest an alternate and will have to pull rank with media policy if we have to,” Gattuso told RTC’s Ball and Michael Moreno. (Moreno died of an illness earlier this year.) “Regardless, we’re going to try and delay things…”

Teamsters Local 533 President Gary Watson

The video feature was never published. Nevada Independent Editor Elizabeth Thompson said they moved on from the story, for now.

“They never provided [an alternate employee], and said they couldn’t arrange for filming because of the strike so we dropped the idea, for the time being, and moved on to other Nevadans at work,” she said.

Watson said Keolis didn’t want the employee’s story told to the public.

“The person they are talking about is … a leader in the workforce,” Watson said. “[He] was featured with his son [who] is a double amputee from a genetic disorder, so they probably didn’t want any of that story out there, including his issues that he had with Keolis canceling his healthcare for his son.”

Gattuso defended the decision to get the employee off the news story.

“In representing my client’s best interests, I am obligated to defer to their media policy when media requests come in,” she said. 

Support for Teamsters drew ‘concern’

An October march organized by the Teamsters to “fire Keolis” was criticized when certain groups noted their intention to support the workers. The Washoe Democrats, Indivisible Northern Nevada and NAACP reportedly joined the effort.

“I expressed my concern that NAACP and Washoe Dems are in this now,” Gattuso wrote to RTC officials.

RTC’s Moreno responded, “Did any of these groups reach out to Keolis/you (specifically Indivisible NV) to ‘research’ facts?”

Gattuso today backpedaled on her statement. 

“The NAACP and Washoe Dems supporting striking workers is not of concern; I fully respect their prerogative to do so,” she said. “Because it’s important [for] all groups [to] have facts concerning the situation, my concern was that my client might not have [the] opportunity to discuss details with influential and well-respected groups in the region entering the public discourse.”

An email between Keolis’ local public relations contractor and RTC’s Michael Moreno.

RTC’s Bill Thomas today said he could not comment on specifics about how RTC staff managed their communications. He added that the news media should be treated fairly, and any unprofessional communications were not condoned.

“People being human beings [were not acting] as professional as they should be,” he said. “The expectation from RTC’s standpoint to respond in a professional and honest way to things that were going on. I do know there was an effort to personalize from a lot of different people. Some people were able to push past that, and for some people [were not]. 

“We are constantly striving to ensure we are responding quickly to any kind of information about RTC to ensure it’s accurate,” he added.

On at least two occasions Keolis shared with RTC links to news stories and statements made by Teamsters boss Gary Watson, saying his comment would be referred to Keolis’ legal counsel for possible litigation. 

“Watson is beyond inflammatory at this point and I have suggested that legal review his statements on the grounds of actionable defamation,” Gattuso wrote to RTC’s Moreno in July of 2021. 

She further clarified that “in those instances when remarks erroneously calling the client out could be perceived as stated or written with the intent to harm reputation, I informed the client they might have cause should they choose to pursue it.”

Watson this week said in response, “If that’s what they feel, they can line up at the door.”

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