Bus drivers, GMT agree on 5-year labor deal

Green Mountain Transit and its bus drivers have agreed on a five-year labor contract. (File photo)

Green Mountain Transit and its bus drivers have agreed on a five-year labor contract. (File photo)

What a difference two years makes for Green Mountain Transit and its drivers.

In spring 2014, the unionized bus drivers that serve Chittenden County were on the streets, striking over working conditions and perceived disrespect from management.

Now they are looking at five years of labor peace after joining with the GMT Board of Commissioners last Friday to announce a new contract that will run through 2021.

The contract takes effect July 1 and includes annual pay increases of 2.8 percent. The current contract, agreed to after the 18-day strike, covered three years with pay increases of roughly 2 percent annually.

GMT, formerly known as Chittenden County Transportation Authority, runs commuter bus service throughout the county as well as express service between Burlington and Montpelier.

Negotiations on the new deal began about a month ago and went quickly because much of the work to repair the driver-management relationship had already been tackled, general manager Karen Walton said.

The drivers union, part of Teamsters Local 597 out of Barre, had developed an adversarial relationship with former general manager Bill Watterson, who presided over the negotiations that led to the strike. Watterson resigned about six months after the strike was resolved.

Walton said her immediate focus was ironing out lingering driver concerns about workplace safety, discipline protocol and working conditions. She also initiated the renaming/rebranding effort.

“We did a lot of pre-negotiation work,” Walton said. “We had a good idea of what they wanted … It wasn’t all about the union having their hand out. It had to do with respect and culture issues. That’s why I applied [for the job]. I knew I could change that. Over the past year and a half, we have been able to settle a lot of differences.”

Tony St. Hilaire, the Teamsters agent who negotiates for the drivers, was not available for comment this week.

In a press release GMT put out Friday he said, “It has been a great benefit to be working with a new management team. Negotiating a five-year contract is good for both organizations. It provides security for the drivers and allows them to focus on giving great service to the public.”

Walton said the five-year time frame was possible because of the passage in December of a federal transportation bill that solidifies GMT’s federal funding for the next five years.

“If you’re going to do a five-year contract, this is a perfect time for it,” she said. “It gives everyone an idea of what’s coming instead of having to constantly be in negotiations.”

The wage increase amounts to 14 percent over five years. It will take driver wages above the 50 percent average nationally for small urban regions, Walton said. Driver pay will go from the current $21.69 per hour to $25 per hour by the time the contract expires.

“It’s not exorbitant. It’s something we can fit within our budget,” Walton said.

That budget is likely to include the first fare increase in 10 years. The organization is conducting a fare analysis this summer. Currently, a one-way ride within Chittenden County costs $1.25.

In addition to state and federal funding and rider fares, GMT is also supported by annual contributions from the municipalities it serves. These typically increase 3 percent each year, Walton said.

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