A six-month-old labor dispute pushed Bakersfield to its first bus strike in 34 years Tuesday..
The union representing 257 bus drivers and mechanics at Golden Empire Transit District said its members walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday after failing to reach agreement with management on raises and some drivers' classification.
Fixed-route service stopped indefinitely, and no drivers showed up for work Tuesday to keep any lines going. The district continued its curb-to-curb paratransit service for about 60 customers with the most urgent medical needs.
Impacts were also expected for passengers of Kern Transit, the county-run regional service that also employs members of Visalia-based Teamsters Local 517. Instead of using GET's downtown transit center and thereby crossing a possible picket line, it planned to pick up and drop off customers behind the Rite Aid Pharmacy at 23rd and H streets.
Both sides of the labor dispute appeared to dig in their heels for what GET and the Teamsters said will disrupt the lives of 20,000 metropolitan Bakersfield customers, most of whom are believed to depend on the bus for transportation.
"This is going to be devastating for our customers and to our community," district spokeswoman Gina Hayden said at a Monday morning news conference. She said the two sides remained "far apart" despite marathon contract talks Friday and Sunday between GET and the Teamsters.
The union made its first detailed public statement since January's start of negotiations on a three-year contract to replace the one that expired in March but had been extended through Monday. It said members are holding out for a 4 percent wage increase each year of the contract "to bring wages more in line with what professional drivers receive in other cities."
The Teamsters said it was also pressing GET to reclassify drivers considered "parttime" regardless of the number of hours they work. It said these "second-class citizens" earn less money than those classified as fulltime, and has proposed moving seven drivers each year to the better-paid ranks "with the goal of eventually eliminating this two-tier system."
"They are not making any outrageous demands," Secretary-Treasurer Chester Suniga wrote, referring to GET's union members. "They just want to be treated fairly and make a decent wage and benefits for themselves and their families."
GET would not discuss details of the contract talks, saying the district and the union had agreed not to negotiate publicly. But Hayden responded to a reporter's question about the allegation drivers earn less here than elsewhere, saying living expenses are lower in Bakersfield and so wages can't be compared across regions. She also said the bus system's future revenues are uncertain.
No resumption of talks is scheduled.
GET rider Bettye Williams, a former professional cook and security guard, did her shopping Monday in preparation for the strike. She said she sides with the drivers.
"They have families, they have babies, they have kids," she said. "(GET officials) need to raise the wages up."
Another GET regular, former truck driver Raymond Dannunzio, said he relies on the bus to get to doctor appointments.
"It's going to affect me in a serious way," he said, adding that he is looking into alternative transportation for medical services.
"This is bad. Twenty thousand people ride these buses every day."
The district may not offer refunds to customers with monthly passes if the strike lasts only a couple of days, Hayden said. But if it goes on much longer, she added, refunds may be issued.
GET's last strike extended three months before ending in October 1980.