Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Employees of Oahu Transit Services picketed yesterday at the entrance and exit of the Pearl City Transit Facility. If the strike drags on, the city may consider making bus workers city employees.

Mayor may back
city bus takeover

Harris floats the idea as
a way to prevent strikes from
halting Oahu's transit system

If the strike drags on, the city may consider making bus workers city employees subject to binding arbitration like firefighters and police officers who cannot go on strike.

Bus drivers are currently not public employees -- they work for the private company, Oahu Transit Services, which runs the bus system for the city.

The city is also prohibited by law from getting involved in the bus collective bargaining.

"If we get involved in the negotiations, then (the bus workers) become public employees and the whole framework changes," Mayor Jeremy Harris said.

Harris said the idea of bus workers becoming public workers is not under consideration now. "We're very proud of our privatized bus service. It's the best in North America; we continue to win that award, and so we certainly don't want to disrupt that in a major way," Harris said.

But if the walkout by the Teamsters-represented bus workers is prolonged and drags on, the city has to look at all available avenues to assure that Honolulu has a public bus system, he said.

"We obviously can't be in a situation where the company and the union are in perpetual disagreement and never come back," the mayor said. "We have to have a bus system for this island and if we do get in that situation ... we are evaluating basically all of our alternatives, and there are a whole variety of them, but one of those alternatives would be to make it a public system, not a privatized system."

Harris said one of the advantages of having the bus workers become public employees is that their pay demands could become subject to binding arbitration -- similar to the process that determines pay raises for police and firefighters.

"If the bus came under the same conditions, then obviously there would not be the possibility of a strike," Harris said. "I'm not advocating that but I'm saying that's one of the futures that is possible."

The idea of un-privatizing the city bus system is getting a mixed reaction from the City Council.

"I think it's worth exploring, but on the other hand sometimes private operations can provide more efficiencies, lower cost," Council Chairman Gary Okino said.

"What bothers me is (bus workers') pay and their benefits is kind of a way beyond other public employees so that's a concern to me," Okino said.

Councilman Charles Djou said he's reluctant and skeptical about reversing a privatized bus system. He said binding arbitration, which allows an arbitrator to determine a pay raise or settlement, is not in the best interest of taxpayers.

"Mandatory binding arbitration seems not to take into the kind of fiscal realities government and taxpayers face and has always had a very strong upward pressure on wages," Djou said.

Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said that whether the city decides on a public or private system or a combination of both, there should be full discussion on it before anything is carried out.


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