Friday, August 29, 2003

Teamsters Union President Mel Kahele listened last night as an OTS negotiator spoke just prior to the OTS team standing up and walking out of the session at 8:25 p.m.

Bus talks
break down

Union negotiators
and OTS officials remain
apart on wage issues

Negotiations to end the bus strike stalled late last night, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to scramble for a fourth day.

Kahele talked to company representatives earlier in the day.

No new talks are scheduled.

The talks ended after more than nine hours with negotiators for Teamsters Local 996, which represents about 1,400 striking bus employees, blaming management.

"There was no progress," said Teamsters Local 996 President Mel Kahele when he emerged from the talks after 11 p.m.

Perry Confalone, chief negotiator for Oahu Transit Services Inc., the private company that runs city bus system, responded that negotiating with the union was like trying to hit a "moving target."

He said management wanted to continue talking today but the union refused.

The bus workers walked off the job at 12:04 a.m. on Tuesday after last-ditch negotiations broke down. The strike has clogged many isle roads during rush hours and has forced bus riders to find other means of transportation.

Yesterday's talks were made possible after Mayor Jeremy Harris and the City Council assured the union Wednesday that plans for bus service cutbacks and driver layoffs would be dropped. Instead, the city now plans to raise bus fares and use the added revenue to avoid the cuts.

After the city's assurance, OTS officials told the union Wednesday that it would offer a "status quo" deal with no changes from the previous contract.

The bus workers have been seeking increases in pay and the company's contribution to their pension plan. But the union's leadership has insisted that the company drop its proposal to take back benefits from the previous contract.

Yesterday's talks got off to a rocky start, according to Kahele. At a dinner break, he complained that "the company is not serious about these negotiations."

On Wednesday, after the city assurances, OTS President and General Manager James Cowen sent a letter to the union stating that if the City Council passes legislation to raise bus fares before Sept. 24, "there will be no service reductions and no layoffs. No workers will have any of their current benefits reduced."

Bus union workers were back on the picket lines today.

However, Kahele said at the dinner break that when both sides first met yesterday, he learned that OTS's "no-layoff" clause was only being offered until June instead of for the length of the proposed three-year contract.

He also said the company was refusing to talk about possible wage increases for the second and third years of the contract although the union was willing to agree to a pay raise for the first year. "It's ludicrous," Kahele said.

However, OTS spokeswoman Marilyn Dicus responded that the proposal was not a step back from what Cowen wrote in the letter. "It doesn't have a time limit on it," she said.

After talks broke off last night, Kahele said the union would take no wage increase in the first year, but wants 50-cent-an-hour wage increases in both the second and third years.

Confalone said the company offered no increase in the first two years but was willing to discuss a raise in the third year.

Harris has said there is no money in the city budget for any wage increases.

The strike has severely affected Handi-Van service to disabled residents. Handi-Van drivers are union members and work for OTS but are covered by a separate contract.

OTS initially suspended all but critical Handi-Van services, such as transporting kidney dialysis patients to their appointments. Company officials said the cuts were needed because they were uncertain how many drivers might choose not to cross the picket line and they feared that Handi-Van drivers would stage a sympathy strike.

Handi-Van restored some service yesterday but it may not return to normal until Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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