Aspen-area public bus drivers vote to join union

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Ed Cortez
Aspen Times file photo |

Full-time, year-round drivers with the Roaring Fork Valley’s public bus system voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to join a transit union.

The vote was 65 in support of joining the union and 22 against, according to Bill Petropulos, labor relations administrator for the Colorado Division of Labor. The labor division oversaw the counting of the mail-in ballots on Wednesday in Denver. Representatives of Roaring Fork Transportation Authority management and the union organizing committee attended the count.

RFTA and the union organizing committee previously said that 115 drivers could vote in the election. Petropulos said the total number of employees eligible to vote was 118. The discrepancy couldn’t be explained.

“It’s a bit puzzling why such a large number didn’t cast ballots,” said RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship. He noted that even if the people who didn’t vote had voted against joining the union, the measure still would have passed comfortably.

“It’s a resounding call for all labor in the Roaring Fork Valley. There’s a way, if labor wants, to get their issues out in the open.”Ed CortezChairman, drivers’ organizing committee

Ed Cortez, a bus driver and chairman of the organizing committee, said the vote reflects frustration among drivers over some of their conditions. “They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity over the years,” he said.

The pay scale is one of the top issues. Cortez and other representatives of the union effort said the pay should reflect the high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley. Drivers also need a system where they can increase their pay more quickly than the current system allows, they said.

The next step for the drivers will be to establish the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union and elect a president-business agent, according to Cortez. He said he will run for the post.

Once the local chapter is established, the drivers will be represented in collective bargaining with RFTA.

Blankenship said in a previous interview that RFTA pays drivers favorably within the transit industry and also within the Roaring Fork Valley labor market, according to surveys commissioned by a consultant. Starting pay for drivers was increased to $18 per hour this winter.

Cortez said RFTA management decisions weren’t the sole reason pay lagged behind where drivers believe it should be. The recession forced governments to tighten their belts. However, the bus agency is now “moving forward” and needs to address the issues that concern the drivers, he said.

Basalt Mayor and longtime RFTA board of directors member Jacque Whitsitt said she wasn’t aware until recently that some drivers had concerns. It is the board’s responsibility to set policy. The upper management is responsible for working with the employees.

“We really steer clear of day-to-day operations, which this is,” Whitsitt said.

Blankenship said drivers’ interest in joining a transit union has ebbed and flowed over the years. A unionization vote failed in the late 1990s but was passed in 2000. That led to collective bargaining by the drivers with management. Drivers declined to recertify with the union in 2002.

He said the recession and an aggressive expansion of bus service were the focus of RFTA in recent years. He said much of the state and federal funding that RFTA receives is earmarked for capital improvements. In that regard, it’s not like RFTA used discretion to favor capital improvements over issues such as employees’ pay, he said. Now that the expansion of service is complete, upper management can change its focus to other issues, Blankenship said.

“RFTA will cooperate with the bargaining unit,” Blankenship said.

Cortez said he texted some drivers after he witnessed the count take place in Denver. Word spread among the ranks about the outcome. One young driver, who had been on the verge of quitting, called Cortez and was ecstatic about the outcome, according to Cortez. “He said, ‘I see some help now,’” Cortez said.

Some drivers and observers of the vote said Cortez’s involvement was key to successfully organizing. Cortez was formerly elected to two four-year terms on the Carbondale Board of Trustees. He also served on RFTA’s board of directors.

Cortez said the RFTA drivers’ successful effort to organize could be a blueprint for other workers.

“It’s a resounding call for all labor in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Cortez said. “There’s a way, if labor wants, to get their issues out in the open.”

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