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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Bus drivers walked off the job last in 1971

 •  Bus strike could hurt recovering economy
 •  Spaces still available on free city-run vans

By Gordon Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

The city first entered the mass-transit business in 1971, the last time O'ahu bus drivers went on strike.

The Teamsters struck against then-bus operator Honolulu Rapid Transit, a private company headed by Harry Weinberg over wage and other issues. Former Mayor Frank Fasi led the charge in setting up Mass Transit Lines Inc., better known as MTL, as the new manager of TheBus.

MTL, headed by four former HRT officers, dealt with operations while the city retained ownership of the buses and facilities, including the Alapa'i Street bus yard once owned by HRT. Federal aid helped purchase the first buses.

The MTL arrangement existed for nearly 20 years until a scandal erupted involving charges that company employees were ordered to repair and service private vehicles. Six top company officials, including MTL's former president, pleaded either guilty or no contest to theft and conspiracy charges.

The scandal led to voters approving the creation of the city-appointed Honolulu Public Transit Authority. While then-Council Chairman Arnold Morgado championed the agency as an independent party that would be able to oversee not only TheBus operations but an impending rail transit system, Fasi criticized it as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

It was the authority which, in December 1991, selected Oahu Transit Services to run TheBus. OTS, headed by nationally acclaimed former Portland, Ore., transit chief Jim Cowen, has renewed its contract on several occasions and added Handi-Van services under its wing in 1997.

Then-HPTA executive director James O'Sullivan said OTS was selected because of its lower bid amount, the reputation of its managers and the company's goal to improve quality of service.

HPTA continued to be a controversial body and voters eventually eliminated it, leaving responsibility over O'ahu's transit needs in the hands of the city Department of Transportation Services.

While OTS and the Teamsters have shaken hands three times in the past 12 years, those settlements did not come easy.

In 1993, the Teamsters threatened to strike over wages, benefits and other issues but an agreement was reached on June 30 less than six hours after the previous contract expired and drivers were supposed to walk off the job. The contract gave the employees 2 percent raises in each of the three years of the contract.

Through March 1997, bus employees voted down one settlement proposal and worked without a new contract for nearly nine months before the Teamsters, under new president Mel Kahele, inked a deal that gave them 2 percent increases in each of four years, retroactive to 1996.

In 2000, bus drivers rejected a four-year settlement agreement in July and, in late September, issued a 36-hour strike notice as the city made contingency plans to deal with impacts. But amid an election night celebration at his campaign headquarters, Mayor Jeremy Harris announced a tentative settlement had been reached that averted the strike that was to begin the following day.

The contract called for bus workers to get a 50-cent increase in each year of the contract. Entry level bus drivers today make $15.26, or $31,700 a year. At the highest rate, at five years, a driver makes $19.99 an hour or $41,600 annually.