November 10, 2011

TCAT Drivers Call in Sick Amid Contract Dispute

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Correction appended

In what many viewed as the most visible outbreak of discontent after months of negotiations over wages and insurance benefits, one third of TCAT bus drivers called in sick Thursday morning, disrupting service on at least eleven rural routes.

The drivers’ union, United Auto Workers 2300, has negotiated with TCAT since the workers voted down a proposed contract on Sept. 25. Both parties have been in negotiations since the drivers’ contract initially expired on Sept. 11, although the terms of the existing agreement were extended, according to Hank Dullea, chair of the TCAT board of directors.

At least 20 bus operators called in sick starting at around 4:30 am Thursday, according to Patty Poist, TCAT communications and marketing manager, prompting the bus company to suspend several routes.

“Dispatchers and supervisors are monitoring this situation by the hour,” Poist said Thursday afternoon.

Some faculty and staff members commute from rural areas, and the University provided free parking on campus Thursday for those affected employees, according to Joe Lalley, senior director of facilities operations at the University. Lalley said rides were available for a few employees with no way to get home.

Carl Seuer, a representative from UAW 2300, said the union was not involved in organizing the workers’ efforts Thursday and refused to comment on the ongoing bargaining process. Still, several members of the University community highlighted the drivers’ plight.

Several TCAT drivers who chose to work Thursday said they and their colleagues were angry that the proposed contract did not provide wage raises for the next three years, despite a rising cost of living.

Brandy Adams, a driver who declined to break his perfect attendance record in 18 years of employment at TCAT, also expressed concern over inadequate health insurance benefits for the drivers.

Yet members of TCAT emphasized that the bus organization — which is jointly funded by several government and non-profit agencies, including Cornell — faces its own financial difficulties.

Dullea, director of TCAT’s board of directors, said TCAT has received decreased funding for the last three years from New York State, TCAT’s largest single source of funding. TCAT is currently operating at a deficit of more than $300,000, Dullea said.

“We’re under tremendous financial constraints right now, as is everyone else in the community,” Poist said. “I know the management here would love to give everybody everything we possibly could — it’s a professional, wonderful, hardworking workforce. The question is, where is that money going to come from? We’re a heavily subsidized, not-for-profit company.”

Prof. Lee Adler, collective bargaining, acknowledged that TCAT does not have the requisite funding to raise wages and, in part, blamed the University for not paying its fair share for TCAT services.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at ILR, called the University’s payment to TCAT a “joke.”

“Cornell should be paying a higher proportion of the costs, since it’s the primary user of these services, and right now it’s not paying it’s fair share,” Bronfenbrenner said. “The University is increasing faculty hiring, and if they have the money to increase faculty, they have the money to pay … the number of TCAT workers there are.”

Lalley, senior director of facilities operations, declined to comment on the University’s relationship to TCAT.

Bronfenbrenner said she thinks it will be important to see whether the next mayor of Ithaca, Mayor-elect Svante Myrick ’09, will hold Cornell “accountable to invest more resources to services where Cornell is the primary user.”

Myrick said he understands both the workers’ sentiments and the city and county’s difficulty increasing their allocations due to financial constraints.

“As a rider and as an elected official, I hope they’re able to come to an agreement,” Myrick said.

Cornell, Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca are all local sources of funding, accounting for about 20 percent of TCAT’s total budget, according to Poist.

Common Council members have not discussed increasing city funding for TCAT because “the city is broke,” said Alderperson George McGonigal (D – 1st Ward).

Alderperson Jennifer Dotson (G – 1st Ward), a member of the TCAT board of directors, declined to comment Thursday.

Cornell Organization for Labor Action President Molly Beckhardt ’14 said COLA started a campaign in September to pressure Cornell and the City of Ithaca to take responsibility for TCAT drivers, who she said are “basically campus workers.”

Beckhardt said it is unfair for the University to pay only one-third of TCAT’s local funding when, she said, Cornell students, faculty and staff constitute more than 70 percent of TCAT ridership.

“TCAT buses service Cornell more heavily than any other part of Ithaca,” Beckhardt said. “Our position is that, regardless of whether it is proportional or not, we should be paying more than we’re paying. It’s on Cornell to up our payments in the hopes that the city and county will do the same.”

Dullea said that the University pays the same rate as any county resident who buys a discounted monthly bus pass. Cornell pays roughly $1.12 per ride instead of the standard single-ride fare of $1.50.

Still, some bus drivers said they feel the University should increase its contribution.

“Cornell is not paying enough for its ridership,” said TCAT driver George Leonard, who worked Thursday. “They should pay a buck and a half apiece, the same as anyone else.”

According to Dullea, UWA leadership has said they will have another contract proposal to present to TCAT management sometime next week.

Poist, TCAT’s manager of communications, said there was no way to know whether workers would call in sick again on Friday.

“This is everything that goes against our philosophy in getting people where they need to go,” Poist said. “We’re very, very, very sorry to our passengers who are affected by this.”

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to The Sun, a previous version of this story stated that TCAT drivers earn little more than the minimum wage. However, drivers’ base pay in fact ranges from $17.77 to $21.58 — more than double the minimum wage. The article also misquoted Prof. Lee Adler, collective bargaining, in remarks he made about the living wage.

Original Author: Rebecca Harris