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Friday, Aug 15 2014 07:49 PM

GET, union reach tentative contract deal

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    GET bus drivers and mechanics represented by the Teamsters union picket the downtown GET bus terminal in Bakersfield. A strike started at 12:01 a.m. July 15, the day this photo was taken, bringing to a halt GET public bus transportation in Bakersfield.

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BY RUTH BROWN AND THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writers rbrown@bakersfield.com, tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Golden Empire Transit and its striking bus workers union reached a tentative agreement on wage increases Friday that could end a contentious, five-week stalemate that has stranded thousands of riders, it was announced late in the day.

GET spokeswoman Gina Hayden would not disclose the details of the deal, only that the agency board of directors will hold a special meeting 3 p.m. Saturday to discuss it.

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Golden Empire Transit's board of directors will hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. Saturday in the GET board room, 1830 Golden State Ave. Receiving public comment is the second item on its agenda.

If the board approves the proposal, Teamsters Local 517 could start taking votes from its 257 striking members Sunday, Hayden said. All of the unionized employees have been on strike since July 15.

On Thursday, the union overwhelmingly rejected a 3 percent raise pitched by GET -- by a vote of 161-19. The union's original request was for a 4 percent wage increase for each year of the contract and a gradual end to the district's two-tier classification of bus drivers.

Passage by the union would require a yes vote of at least 50 percent, plus one.

Union negotiators and GET had returned to the bargaining table 1 p.m. Friday in hopes of resolving key issues with a proposed contract's duration and start date, a union official said Friday morning.

It was the length of GET's previous proposed contract -- one-year -- and its July 1 retroactive start date that prompted union members to vote it down -- not the raise itself, Chester Suniga, principal officer at Teamsters, said.

The one-year term would have required bargaining to resume in seven to eight months, Suniga said -- a prospect union officials did not relish.

Its July 1 start date also would have meant union members would lose three months of their wage increase because the previous contract expired March 31.

Suniga said this loss would essentially negate any positive impact the 3 percent increase would otherwise have.

He dismissed a rumor that union members would approve the existing contract offer and return to work if GET's board of directors fired CEO Karen King.

"There's no truth to that as far as going back to work. Everybody's willing to go back to work. A few of the drivers have said, 'Hey, we'll go back to work for nothing if the City Council removes Karen King.' I can't say it is a majority. That's just something that is out there," Suniga said, adding, "That shouldn't weigh on our decision on this contract."

Also speaking Friday morning, Hayden said the agency's operating funds, much of which come from the state, have been hard-hit by a drop in sales tax revenue, tying GET's hands.

"For us to agree to a multi-year contract of 3 percent when we're not sure what our funding is going to be, it is just not something we can do," Hayden said.

But GET has been under increasing pressure to hammer out a deal.

The second GET strike in 34 years attracted the notice of the Bakersfield City Council, which on Wednesday asked the two members it appoints to the agency's board of directors for a report.

Dissatisfied by what it heard, the City Council considered two motions to remove its board members, Norris Ledbetter and Howard Silver -- but approved neither.

Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell and Ward 5 Councilman Harold Hanson told The Californian Friday afternoon they were still unhappy with GET.

"My concern is (board members) are in lockstep with the management team," said Maxwell, who voted for both motions. "I think you've got to send a clear message they need to be replaced."

Hanson, who voted against both motions, said much the same.

"I think the board needs to make sure Karen and all her lieutenants are really doing the right thing," Hanson said. "I think there's a cancer in that organization and somebody better come along and cut it out before they have some terrible, terrible issues."

Silver, who has been on the board 30 years, said he expects changes will be made -- but union employees need to do a better job of engaging management, too.

"It's one thing to be emotional and do all this complaining and it's another thing to go to the source. You have to communicate," Silver said. "I have to tell you, as far as Karen running the organization and the way the organization is set up to operate, I have never seen it more functional than it is right now."

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