Pensacola, Florida
Saturday November 22nd 2014

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Waiting for the Bus

INSIDE THE ECAT STRIKE
by Jeremy Morrison

Busses are currently rolling their routes through Escambia County, but who knows for how long. If the county and its private management firm, Veolia Transportation, can’t reach an agreement with employees sometime soon the public transit system, Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT), could grind to a halt.

“Employees are ready to walk out the door again today,” said Michael Lowery, head of the local transit union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1395.

Drivers and other transportation employees went on strike for one day last week before returning to wait out another round of negotiations. Only, Lowery doesn’t think that Veolia, a French-based company the county contracts with to operate ECAT, has any intention of negotiating.

“It’s a one-sided negotiation right now,” he said.

Lowery said he believes that Veolia purports to come to the table publicly, with no real intentions of entering into give-and-take conversations.

“They put up a wall,” the union official said. “They’re also doing it in Phoenix, Arizona.”

Veolia operates transit systems in multiple markets. Currently, the company is involved in contract negotiations in Arizona and elsewhere.

Mike Ake, the company’s regional vice president, disagrees.

“We always come to the table to negotiate in good faith,” he said, adding that the Arizona negotiations are simply snagged on financial differences. “The dollar issues are what the hold is right now.”

Lowery said the parties are set to return to the table Oct. 4 to see if they can restart the conversation. That’s news to Ake. He said he hasn’t gotten confirmation from the union on the date, and wonders if it’s actually going to happen.

“Frankly, I think it’s a big ‘if,’” Ake said.

Employees have raised issue over both pay and treatment. Lowery said, at this point, they’re becoming more concerned about the treatment issue, about the work environment.

“It’s a very, very bad situation as far as moral,” he said. “It’s so bad that 90 percent of the work force walked off the job. That tells you something right there.”

Lowery said employees have complained of being stiffed on vacation and maternity pay, as well as an overall tense work environment.
Ake disagrees.

“I keep seeing something referred to as ‘mistreatment of employees.’ I’m not sure what they mean by that,” Ake said. “I think it’s all a dollar issue, myself.”

As for Escambia County, officials are hoping for a happy ending. Kenneth Gordon, general manager for ECAT, said he’s just waiting for next week’s negotiations.

“I have no expectations,” Gordon said. “I hope the mediator can help us.”

Union officials believe the county has not been involved enough in the process. Because the issue is one of public service  — a publicly provided transit system — they think Escambia officials should take more of a role.

“The county,” Lowery said, “has been so hands off.”

There have also been some more sinister accusations flying about town. Being that the area is ultra conservative, politically speaking, and assumedly anti-union, some have suggested that Veolia is floating a trial balloon of stone-walling the union; the thinking being, if that works here, try it elsewhere.

“We feel that’s true,” Lowery said, adding that anti-union sentiment is building in general nationwide. “There’s been a whole movement — Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, even here in Florida.”

Ake is appalled. The Veolia official said the company earnestly wants to reach an agreement.

“Absolutely, not true,” Ake said.

Another accusation is based on Veolia’s multi-national nature. There are concerns that the company forgoes employees’ gains in favor of socking revenue away in France.

“The story about all the money that we’re shipping back to France is absolutely crazy,” Ake said, adding that while the company is based overseas, many of its employees are local.

“Can I say one more thing about the French-thing, because that just keeps coming up,” he said. “My regional office is in Pensacola. I live here in Pensacola.”

One thing the two sides apparently agree on is the need for a dedicated funding source to help ease operating cost. Currently, the county relies on money from property taxes.

“I think that a dedicated funding source is needed here in Escambia County,” said Gordon. “A dedicated funding source is a good idea.”

Lowery couldn’t agree more. He sites other transit systems in metropolitan areas that rely on such tax-based source. He went on to say that the union would fund a campaign to educate voters on the issue if it were placed on the ballot.

“The county has done a poor job communicating to the public that we need a dedicated funding source,” he said.

As for upcoming negotiations, it doesn’t look too good on the dollar front. Ake said the union has “unrealistic expectations.”

That’s too bad. Lowery said his union members truly do need an increase in pay. He said that while company officials paint employees as “being greedy,” they are having difficulty keeping their heads above water.

“Right now,” he said, “we have some members that are saying they are borderline foreclosure on their homes.”

And as for the treatment issue, one side of the table isn’t even sure there is one.

“I believe that’s the message that the union would like to get out there, but that’s not necessarily true,” Gordon said.

Ake said that working conditions were dictated by previous union-negotiated contracts. Nothing has changed.

“These conditions have not changed,” Ake maintained. “The are exactly what the union negotiated. I have no idea what they are talking about.”
Lowery said he’s not sure how it’ll turn out.

“We could see a strike or we could see the employers lock us out,” he said, noting he had noticed ads in the Pensacola News Journal for employment within the company. “We don’t put it past them to do whatever they’re going to do.”