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Metro bus

A Metro bus in Rock Hill on April 26, 2013. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • Metro bus drivers are taking frustrations over slow-moving contract negotiations directly to some of the passengers they pick up and drop off each day.

Reaching out to riders is the latest effort by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788 in their contract dispute with the Metro transit agency. Union officials said this week that drivers and operators might become even more visible in the weeks ahead.

“We need to recruit our passengers to stand up and fight for transit,” Amalgamated Transit Union International President Larry Hanley said in a video update posted on YouTube last week. “We need to join arms and hands with our passengers and get them on our side.”

In the video, Hanley highlighted the labor struggles the ATU is facing in several cities — including St. Louis — throughout the U.S. and Canada, and how the locals are responding. St. Louis is “fighting hard to keep their pension rights,” he said.

Metro’s management wants to shift newly hired drivers, mechanics and clerical staff from a traditional pension plan to one that more closely resembles a 401(k). Union members are worried about that, salaries and proposed reductions in medical benefits.

Metro President and CEO John Nations said that although workers were engaging passengers, the union so far had not put forward a viable counter-proposal.

“The passengers are on the side of safe and dependable and financially viable public transportation systems,” Nations said.

Nations has said his agency is trying to deal with rising pension costs that have crippled some other public agencies. Some employee groups at Metro already have begun the transition to the new system.

Nations added that he had seen the YouTube video, which he said demonstrates that the union has taken positions at odds with multiple transit agencies.

Michael Breihan, president of ATU Local 788, in St. Louis, said drivers had been communicating informally with passengers on buses and at transit centers, and also distributed some leaflets.

“If we don’t have a contract before the first of the year, you will probably see a lot of the members out there at stations,” Breihan said.

The union represents roughly 1,500 bus and train operators, mechanics and clerical workers.

It has been more than five months since the drivers’ union authorized a strike. But Breihan said that transit union lawyers had determined that a strike would be illegal under Missouri law. He noted that Illinois law does not prohibit a strike.

The agency, based in Missouri, serves Illinois riders in St. Clair County under contract with the transit authority there. Madison County operates a separate bus system.

Before the Fair St. Louis in July, Metro officials went public with their fear that drivers would make good on a threat to stop work.

Nations said the agency had heard directly from its passengers that some drivers were warning that buses and trains would go idle.

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At the time, the union questioned how rumors of a work stoppage escalated so quickly to public warnings and printed letters being handed out to riders.

Breihan said some of the passenger outreach had begun at that point, but insisted that riders were not told that a strike was in the works.

Many Metro patrons interviewed this week said they had never been approached by bus drivers or MetroLink operators about the contentious contract negotiations.

Regular rider Marcus Howard, of St. Louis, said he would not object if a driver brought it up. “I wouldn’t mind,” he said, “considering it’s my mode of transportation right now.”

Some passengers said Metro workers already had spoken to them.

Mark Delmage, of Ferguson, said that sometime after the strike vote was taken, a bus driver told him in passing about mismanagement of the transit agency. Delmage said it prompted him to voice concerns in calls to a television station and Metro’s executive office.

Delmage takes four buses each way to his custodian job in Creve Coeur. It’s two hours each way. But he can’t afford a car.

Metro rider Joseph Jerrod, who lives in Bel-Ridge and attends St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley, said at least one driver had told him a couple of months ago that St. Louis bus pay lagged behind that in other cities.

“The drivers were talking about walking,” Jerrod said he was told. “I rely on them. I ride every day, Monday through Thursday.”

Ken Leiser is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.