METRO reaches agreements with two unions

The 72/Hospital and the 69A/Capitola Road busses wait for departure from the Watsonville METRO station in Watsonville recently. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Third union still in contract negotiations

WATSONVILLE — Santa Cruz METRO and the union protecting the fixed-route bus operators on Aug. 23 finalized a three-year labor agreement that is expected to alleviate the recent uptick in delays and cancelations in the county’s public transportation system.

Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation (SMART) Local 23 ratified a modified labor agreement on Aug. 22, and METRO approved the union’s proposal at a Board of Directors meeting the following day.

METRO initially proposed a tentative agreement earlier this month that included pay increases of 4, 3 and 2.25 percent over three years. That agreement, however, did not allow drivers to make double time on a seventh straight day of work, an aspect of the previous agreement that METRO representatives wanted to remove because of safety concerns, according to METRO Director of Marketing, Communications and Customer Service Jayme Ackemann.

Under the approved contract, drivers will continue to have the ability to make double time on the seventh day, but the first-year pay increase will instead be 2.8 percent — not the originally proposed 4 percent. The increases for years two and three remain the same.

“That double time on the seventh day was a big part of the negotiations,” said SMART Local 23 General Chairman James Sandoval. “That’s how most of our workers make enough money to live in this area.”

Sandoval said the wage increases were “fair,” but mentioned that some members of the union thought they should have held out for more after battling through four years of stagnant wages. But many daily bus routes were either delayed or outright canceled during the labor disputes, according to Sandoval, leaving members of the community that depend on Santa Cruz METRO without means of transportation.

“We felt like the members of the community were being left behind,” Sandoval said. “Many of the drivers were sad to see the community in that spot.”

Watsonville resident Rebecca Schiffrin said she relies on public transportation to get around town for appointments, and that the recent cancelations were a pain in her side. On Wednesday she said many of her usual routes were back on track.

“It’s huge for me and I think for several other people,” she said. “I’m very pleased that they’re back.”

The agreement comes weeks after METRO and ParaCruz agreed on a similar three-year contract.

METRO is still in contract negotiations with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, which protects mechanics, accountants, customer service staff and other service staff.

Negotiations began in April, and METRO submitted its “last, best and final” offer to all three unions on Aug. 8.

METRO employee Michael Rios said 80 percent of the SEIU Local 521 membership voted against accepting the offer on Aug. 19.

“It was overwhelming,” Rios said. “We’d like to get back to the table with METRO and work toward something that’s fair.”

Rios said the current offer would freeze 47 percent of the union’s salary, and not give them a living wage increase. That offer, Rios said, was not operating in good faith considering the union gave back its 2 percent cost of living increase in 2015, when METRO was strapped financially.

Rios said the union was also instrumental in passing Measure D and SB1, both of which helped the public transportation system rebound.

“METRO has a healthy budget, they have the surplus,” Rios said. “The fact that they’re not willing to budge is disappointing.”

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