Orange County bus strike enters Day 2, leaving riders stranded

For a second day in a row, thousands of Orange County bus riders find themselves without service Friday as the union representing OC Transportation Authority maintenance workers continues a strike over what it calls stalled labor negotiations.

The union called the walkout Wednesday -- setting up picket lines at the agency's Santa Ana and Garden Grove yards -- and Thursday was the first day that bus commuters were left to look for alternate means of getting to and from work, doctor visits and other appointments.

OCTA had alerted commuters to check the agency's website for any updates -- but despite the warnings, people unaware of the disruption were still seen Thursday morning at various bus stops, waiting for buses that weren't coming.

Orange County Board Chairman Doug Chaffee, who also serves on the OCTA board, said it doesn't appear Gov. Gavin Newsom will step in anytime soon.

"The governor's been called, but he's declined to invoke the power he has to temporarily stop the strike," Chaffee said. "The strike may last awhile, but I hope not."

Chaffee said he believes, "The hang-up is health care" in the negotiations.

OCTA claims it can offer health care benefits for a lot less money than the Teamsters. The Teamsters Labor Alliance Trust Fund costs $350 monthly for every plan, but the bus drivers, who are also represented by the same union, receive health care through the transportation agency and they pay $38.05 for single coverage, $108.18 for two-party coverage and $220.52 for family coverage.

OCTA claims that annual savings for each plan would be $3,743.40, $2,901.84 and $1,553.82.

Teamsters officials refute the claims, however.

"The union says here's our plan, it will save you money," while OCTA claims its plan will save money, Chaffee noted.

"That kind of stuff has to stop," Chaffee said of the back-and- forth. "You have to put everyone in the same room and shut the door. ... They're not that far apart."

Chaffee stressed that he is not part of the negotiating team, so, "All I can do is probably chew the fat with (OCTA CEO) Darrell Johnson."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: OC bus maintenance workers take to streets to strike, bus service impacted

The city of Santa Ana released a statement advising bus riders to prepare for service disruptions until at least Sunday.

"Orange County Transportation Authority announced there may be disruptions in OC Bus service starting today, Wednesday, Nov. 2, and there will be NO OC BUS SERVICE tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 3, and potentially through Sunday, Nov. 6, due to a maintenance employees' strike. Riders should plan alternate ways to travel," according to the city.

The union's 150 machinists, mechanics and service technicians provide a variety of services, from gassing up buses to making repairs.

"We cannot safely operate our buses without our maintenance employees," Joel Zlotnik, an OCTA spokesman, said Wednesday.

A strike that was previously planned for Oct. 17 was called off when Newsom asked both sides to continue negotiations, but the talks fizzled this week when Teamsters Local 952 claimed OCTA negotiators walked away from the bargaining table on Monday.

"We have done everything in our power to avoid a strike," Teamsters Local 952 Secretary-Treasurer Eric Jimenez said in a statement Wednesday. "They have even rejected our proposals that would save them money on members' health care. But when OCTA walked away from the table on Monday, they gave us no other choice."

Zlotnik, however, replied, "That's untrue. I won't discuss the details of the negotiations. There have been proposals back and forth, and we fully expected to continue those talks on Friday."

Later Wednesday, OCTA officials released terms of the agency's contract offers. According to OCTA, the agency offered a 14.25% salary increase over three years, which includes an immediate 5% pay hike, another 4.75% increase on Oct. 1 of next year and an additional 4.5% raise on Oct. 1 of 2024.

The offer also include a 16% hike in health care contributions over the same period, in addition to chipping in 26.4% of salary to the Orange County Employees Retirement System and $1.30 per hour worked -- up to 2,080 hours -- to the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Fund.

The top wage for mechanics would be $43.19 per hour, or $90,000 annually, which doesn't include healthcare and pension contributions, according to the OCTA.

OCTA officials argued that because the maintenance employees are in the union's trust for their health insurance benefits, the cost of the plan and design of it is up to the Teamsters.

Bus drivers, who are under the agency's health care plan, pay about $120 per month for health care, and OCTA has offered to provide health care options to lower the monthly cost for the mechanics, according to the agency.

"We understand how this labor dispute will adversely affect thousands of riders who depend on the bus system for their transportation needs," Jimenez said.

Union representatives said they feel they have done everything they can to settle the labor dispute, which has lingered since negotiations began May 25.

"We have brought in mediators," Jimenez said. "We have come up with ways to save OCTA money on health care. We have reached out to OCTA board members and local political leaders. We have honored the governor's request to return to the table and continue talks. We have asked our members to be patient and continue working with the utmost professionalism without an agreement ... only to have OCTA continually refuse to bargain in good faith and disrespect us by walking out of negotiations."

The union will not return to talks until the agency has "significantly" updated its bargaining position, officials said.

"They have asked us to meet with them again on Friday," Jimenez said. "We are willing to do so only if there are significant changes in their bargaining posture. If not, another meeting would not be productive."

Zlotnik said the agency was "very disappointed in the approach the union has taken in these negotiations. We have reached out to them and had asked to continue meeting on Friday, and, instead, it appears rather than meet they have chosen to go on strike."

The agency "feels terrible for the riders who are really the ones who are the most hurt by this," Zlotnik said.

OCTA has provided a "competitive, fair offer and similar in nature to the agreement we reached with coach operators earlier this year, and we're disappointed the union won't continue the negotiations," Zlotnik added.