Grand Valley Transit union workers have authorized their executive board to strike if the union can't reach a deal on better pay with the contractor who operates the bus service.
The timing of this development is interesting for two reasons.
Last year, teacher strikes swept through Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky. Thousands of Colorado teachers had joined the grassroots movement, holding rallies at the state capitol to demand a pay raise and more funding. That was a prelude to the Denver three-day teacher strike that just ended Thursday after a tentative deal was purportedly struck with Denver Public Schools.
The deal includes an average 11.7 percent pay raise and annual cost of living increases, according to the school district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. The deal will cost the district $23 million.
The district agreed to cut back on administrative costs, and will eliminate about 150 positions in the school's central office. Five-figure bonuses for senior school administrators will also come to an end.
GVT workers may feel that labor victories stacking up around the country give them some momentum — and a moral foundation — to demand a living wage. But there's a big difference between teachers, who are front and center in their communities, and Grand Valley bus drivers, who serve a population that is far less visible. How many people do any of us know who rely on public transportation?
The big question is how much leverage the GVT workers have by way of public support. The union seems eager to find out. But the timing of the impasse presents a huge hurdle.
The contract negotiation comes well after funding for 2019 has been established. Ideally, labor costs should have been negotiated before local governments ponied up the funds to keep the buses running.
The Grand Valley Regional Transportation Committee is made up of elected officials from Mesa County, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade, which all fund GVT in their annual budgets. The committee contracts with the operator, Transdev Services, which negotiates with the union over pay, benefits and workplace issues.
The union's request for a starting wage of $16 an hour leaves some question as to where the money would come from. Since the budget — comprised of federal funds and local matching contributions — is already set, something has to give. Local entities would have to kick in more money, fares would have to rise, routes could be eliminated or Transdev would have to eat the costs — or some combination thereof.
The drivers certainly have our sympathy. It's tough to make a living working for $11.25 to $13.60 an hour. It's easy to suggest a strike is a public betrayal since their paychecks come from taxpayers. But local officials must realize that a vital and reliable public service depends on reliable employees. That's difficult to establish with a pay scale that virtually guarantees high turnover.
A strike would impose a hardship on people who already find it difficult enough to hold down a job or access health care without a personal vehicle. There has to be some bargain in the mix that will satisfy all parties — even if it's just a stopgap until negotiations can be better aligned with budget preparations.