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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 26, 2003

Week of free bus service offered to coax riders

 •  Money saved in strike not for raises
 •  Bus strike left everyone winning some, losing some
 •  Relieved bus riders resigned to higher fares

By Mike Leidemann and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writers

O'ahu Transit Services maintenance foreman Eugene Teves, left, and bus driver Nathan Tai were ready to prepare the idled buses to evacuate people in the event of a tsunami, which was feared after an earthquake off Japan yesterday.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The city will offer free bus service for five days starting Monday if striking bus workers ratify a new contract agreement reached yesterday, officials said.

Members of the Hawai'i Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996 are set to vote tomorrow on the new five-year contract. Mayor Jeremy Harris said bus service could resume in time for the Monday morning rush hour if the deal is approved.

The proposed contract, announced at about 2 a.m. yesterday, would give workers pay increases in the fourth and fifth year, as well as added benefits to their pension plans in the third, fourth and fifth years.

Ratification of the contract would bring an end to the month-old labor dispute that stranded riders, snarled traffic, frayed tempers and polarized opinions throughout the city.

"I think we're all relieved," Harris said. "It's been a disastrous strike for our city and especially our senior citizens. It's time to get the buses rolling again."

If service begins on Monday, all rides would be free through next Friday, he said.

Harris said he is certain that no new tax increases or fare increases will be necessary to pay for the first three years of the contract, but he couldn't promise the same thing for the fourth and fifth years, after he has left office.

"I think it should have been a three-year contract. It's impossible to tell what will happen any further out," he said. The contract was negotiated by O'ahu Transit Service officials, who run the $120 million-a-year bus operation under a contract with the city.

The free bus service is designed to counter a projected loss of ridership that traditionally follows a strike or a fare increase.

"We want to make it attractive so that people will come back to the bus," Harris said.

Much of the $3 million the city saved by not paying salaries and other bus expenses during the strike could be offset by an expected loss in revenue from a decline in ridership, Harris said.

OTS' Ramon Arjona III, right, thanks mechanic Ben Asato after the city called off yesterday's efforts to run buses in the event of a tsunami emergency. Fifty striking drivers offered to help.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

In some Mainland bus strikes, ridership has declined by as much as 25 percent in the first year following a settlement. The $3 million represents about the amount that would be lost if 8 percent of Honolulu's riders do not return to the system, said Cheryl Soon, the city's transportation services director.

The city also expects to lose some riders because of new fare increases approved by the City Council this week. Those fares will go into effect Oct. 4 if the workers approve the new contract as expected, Soon said.

When the new fares are implemented, it will cost $2 for a single ride and $40 (up from $30) for an adult monthly bus pass. Senior citizens will pay $1 for a ride, $5 for a monthly pass or $30 for a yearly pass.

"We really don't have a choice but to pay it, but I think it's really outrageous," bus rider Barbara Koizumi said yesterday.

Harris said the contract would cost the city about $4 million annually by the fifth year.

The proposal calls for a freeze in pay for the first three years but wage increases of 50 cents an hour in the fourth year and 65 cents an hour in the fifth year. Bus drivers make between $15.26 and $21.17 an hour; other bus workers a little less.

The proposal also calls for increases of 20 cents an hour in employee pension contributions in the third, fourth and fifth years, for a total increase of 60 cents an hour by the third year. The employer currently contributes about $3.20 an hour to the pension plan, which is paid for entirely by OTS.

The proposed settlement guarantees no layoffs and no cuts in benefits for the life of the contract, including medical benefits.

What you need to know about TheBus

Q. When will the union vote?

A. On Saturday. The Teamsters bargaining committee is recommending approval.

Q. When might service resume?

A. If the contract is approved, the buses would begin running again on Monday and would be free for five days.

Q. What will the new fares be?

A. $2 for adults, $1 for youths, $1 seniors. Monthly passes: $40 adults, $20 youths, $5 seniors

Wage progression provisions are proposed that would appear to help the company in the long run. Bus workers hired after the contract is ratified would need to put in six years of service to reach the top of the wage scale while all current and former employees top out at the fifth year.

Further, new employees would start at wages 64 percent of top scale, lower than the 70 percent that beginning workers now make.

By law, the union is required to send the "last, best and final offer" from OTS to its workers for a vote. Technically, the proposal is not a "settlement" because the union had no say in the matter. The Teamsters' bargaining committee, however, did vote to recommend that the membership approve the offer.

"We've got no layoffs for five years, there are no cutbacks in benefits," said Mel Kahele, local Teamsters president. "The increases that the company put on their last and final offer in wages and pension, we are going to go out there and let the members vote on it."

Jim Santangelo, a vice president for the parent International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said union leaders were not completely satisfied with the final offer made by the company. "It's never enough money," Santangelo said. "Are we happy? Of course not, we're not happy. But the people are going to make that decision and that's where it's at."

News of the agreement brought sighs of relief from bus workers, riders and others.

"This strike has been like being in jail. I have gone nowhere since the strike began, canceling doctor appointments and staying home from work," said Salt Lake resident Patricia Cabalse. "Absolutely, I'm glad it's over and happy to be using the bus again."

Bus mechanic Ben Asato, one of the 1,300 Teamsters who went on strike Aug. 26, said the contract probably will be approved.

"We're willing to accept this proposal because we want everybody back to work," he said.

On the picket line at the main Middle Street bus yard yesterday, the mood was upbeat after the contract settlement was announced although the crowd was a little smaller than other days. Union members munched on some fresh-cut watermelon as they walked the line.

Sivanu Maulupe, who has been a bus driver for 14 years, said workers felt that the requests were fair. "We're not here to rob the bank. We're here for a fair contract," he said.

The month-long negotiation process, much of it played out publicly, drew heated opinions from those inconvenienced most by the strike — the riders.

Koizumi, a literature/bid correspondent for Carrier Hawai'i in Waipi'o, said the bus drivers should not be getting raises in consecutive years. "I don't think that's really necessary," she said. "We're on a budget, too. To me we're paying for what they're asking for."

Waikiki resident Michael Natividad said, however, that he was glad the union workers fought for their jobs and benefits at a time when other employers are cutting salaries and benefits and the city was spending money on other projects such as beautification projects on local streets.

"They were sticking up for themselves and for all the little guys," he said. "Sometimes you have to put your feet down and say enough is enough."

OTS officials said they anticipate few problems in getting the buses ready to roll on Monday.

Up to 100 nonunion company employees have done regular checks on the 600-bus fleet, including starting the buses and recharging batteries.

Soon said once the contract is ratified, mechanics would return to work, probably on Sunday, to ready the buses for operation the next morning.

The city also said it plans to offer partial rebates or other compensation to riders who purchased a monthly bus pass in August or September.

Advertiser staff writers Robbie Dingeman and Treena Shapiro contributed to this story.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com. Reach Gordon Pang at 525-8070 or gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.