Rejecting a two-year wage freeze, King County transit workers turned down a proposed labor contract by a wide margin on Wednesday.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 members voted down the contract 1,595 to 839, according to unofficial results released on Thursday morning. It was the second time in less than a year that the union's membership has rebuffed a contract offer from the county. The next step toward reaching a labor agreement will be an arbitration process that, according to a Metro Transit spokesperson, could stretch into early next year. The transit workers are not allowed to strike.
The union's leadership had urged members to accept the county's offer, even though it contained a two-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments. Union president Paul Bachtel said yesterday that although the proposed contract was concessionary he was hoping the union members would approve it so that arbitration could be avoided. In arbitration "the county will be arguing for zero, zero, zero," he said yesterday, referring to pay increases during the three years covered by the contract.
Metro is currently mired in financial problems that are forcing the agency to make substantial service cuts that will begin later this month.
A ballot initiative that would have raised new revenue for the agency was shot down by county voters in April. Critics of the measure pointed to Metro's labor costs as a drain on funding. Bus drivers that work for the agency make between $20.15 and $30.21 per hour. The national hourly mean wage for urban transit bus drivers in May 2013 was $17.16, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
King County Executive Dow Constantine's office referred requests for comment on the contract vote to Metro Transit.
"We are disappointed," Metro spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok said. "Everyone worked long and hard with the independent mediator to reach a fair and mutually agreeable contract."
"It did reflect our joint commitment to preserve as much bus service as possible with the revenues available," she added.
Asked how important constraining labor costs was to Metro's finances, Ogershok said: "I can tell you that, clearly, labor costs are one factor of many factors that we seriously look at."
The contract would have applied retroactively to Nov. 1, 2013. The first cost-of-living adjustment was to occur in November 2015. The increases are based on an index that fluctuates based on inflation. The last time transit workers received such an increase was in November 2012. It was about 3 percent.
One perk for workers in the rejected contract, was that Metro bus drivers would have received guaranteed shift breaks for the first time. Drivers do not take lunch breaks, even during eight-hour shifts, and some have raised concerns that is difficult for them to find time to use the bathroom while keeping to their route schedules.
"When buses run overcrowded, or behind schedule, the driver is in a very difficult spot," Bachtel said yesterday referring to when a driver is trying to find time to use the restroom. "It's really difficult out there right now."