Taking a conciliatory stance after nearly five weeks of strife, Bakersfield's public bus system and its employee union on Monday announced that as part of Golden Empire Transit District's resumption of service all rides will be free until Sept. 1 and bus passes will be issued to everyone unable to use them during the strike.
At a semi-choreographed joint news conference, representatives of GET and Teamsters Local 517 said concern for passengers, and students in particular, was the reason they agreed late last week on a new, three-year labor contract ending the strike that halted bus service July 15.
Chester Suniga, the union's principal officer, said no one was entirely happy with the contract, which he noted does nothing to address a two-tiered system that pays some bus drivers less than others.
"The public has always been in our mind," he said, asserting the agreement "proves that our drivers and our maintenance people are not greedy."
GET spokeswoman Gina Hayden apologized for the strike that forced thousands of bus riders to find alternate transportation to work, doctor appointments and shopping.
"We're sorry that they (customers) were caught in the middle," she said. "But we're back in service. It's good now."
GET plans to issue free 31-day bus passes to people who were unable to use theirs during the strike, Hayden said.
Besides ending Bakersfield's first bus strike since 1980, the new contract gives more than 250 unionized GET employees a 3 percent raise retroactive to April 1, then a 2.5 percent raise next year and a 2 percent raise the following year. Originally the Teamsters asked for 4 percent raises each of the three years.
GET had maintained it could not afford raises of more than 2 percent because its future revenues were too uncertain. Hayden did not back off that assertion Monday, saying it remains to be seen how the new contract will affect the district's finances.
"I'm not going to say we will not have financial cuts as we get through the year," she said. Such cuts could result in service reductions, she explained.
GET said the contract will increase its costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars in each of the next three years.
The strike followed a 2012 GET system overhaul that has been painful for many bus ridersbecause route changes forced some to walk much farther to the nearest stop.
The protracted strike prompted intervention by local elected leaders. But what impact that had was in some dispute Monday.
County Supervisor Leticia Perez had brokered a series of talks when it became clear neither party was reaching out to the other. When those discussions broke down, the Bakersfield City Council summoned two city-appointed district board members to its meeting last week. Two motions to replace them were considered at the meeting but no action was taken.
Suniga said the council's action provided a "huge push to the membership."
Hayden declined to put it in such strong terms, but she noted the meeting did demonstrate the value of good communication.