ITHACA, N.Y. — With labor contract negotiations dragging on, drivers, mechanics, and other workers at Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) moved to hold a strike authorization vote. The results, tabulated on Wednesday, show that a potential work stoppage has the support of 88% of the bargaining unit at TCAT, but this does not actually commit them to going on strike. A strike authorization is a procedural requirement before union workers can go on strike.
The vote comes almost six months after the expiration of the labor contract between TCAT and United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300, the union that represents workers at TCAT. Lance Sharp, UAW Local 2300’s Election Chairperson, said that the election saw a 65% turnout among bargaining unit members and that the vote represents an “overwhelming” result.
A strike authorization vote is also, potentially, a tactic. Workers are demonstrating to TCAT management the potential that they might put the bus in park in order to make a point amid contract negotiations.
UAW Local 2300 President Levon Brewer declined to comment at length on the results of the strike authorization since he is still working to hammer out a contract with TCAT. Brewer did say that the union is looking to come to an agreement with TCAT, and that “bargaining in good faith is extremely important to the UAW […] and we are bargaining in good faith.”
TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool, who is also sitting at the bargaining table, said he was “unable to comment at this time.”
TCAT Driver Shawn Kelly, who is not at the bargaining table, told The Ithaca Voice that the grueling work hours that sometimes turn into 14 hour days, inadequate pay, and frustration over securing vacation and sick time off from work are the underlying reasons for the strike authorization vote.
Kelly said, “We took a strike authorization vote, and basically, that’s us putting management on notice, saying, ‘Look, you guys need to start playing ball’ because these people are serious.”
Short staffing and difficulty recruiting and retaining drivers has also exacerbated issues at TCAT. From a high of 90 drivers in 2018, TCAT has slipped down to 56 full time and 4 part time drivers. In October, TCAT had 59 full time and 5 part time drivers. Currently, there are 3 drivers in training at the agency, and 5 out on a leave of absence. The staff shortages have resulted in TCAT needing to slash service, or mandate drivers to work extra shifts in order to keep bus routes running.
As a result of the mechanic shortage, TCAT has seen the number of bus trips it has missed balloon as a major backlog of repairs have kept many TCAT buses from getting on the road. TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool told the transit agency’s Board of Directors at a Dec. 1 meeting that TCAT missed 903 trips in October, shattering the previous all time record of 417 which was only set in September.
“That’s unbelievable compared to 417 missed trips in September, so we’re really not in a good place,” Vanderpool told TCAT’s Board of Directors.
Of the 903 missed bus trips, 705 are attributed to the bus shortage caused by the lack of mechanic positions.
But TCAT seems to have made some progress in filling mechanic positions. In mid-October, TCAT had just seven of its 12 mechanic positions filled. Vanderpool confirmed with The Ithaca Voice in early December that there are now a total of 10 positions filled, with eight mechanics available to work on full-size buses, and one dedicated to working on Gadabout mini-buses. One mechanic is currently on a leave of absence.
TCAT is also facing increasing costs, and the potential for revenues to plateau or even decline. TCAT’s August 2022 budget projections displayed a potential deficit of up to $3.7 million in its operational budget come 2024.
Across the country, driver and mechanic shortages, parts shortages, and generally uncertain economic climate are plaguing transit agencies. According to survey results from the American Public Transportation Association released in March 2022, “nearly three-in-four” transit agencies have had to cut service to some degree due to a lack of workers. The fear is that this could lead to further negative effects, where bus agencies lose the trust of riders that they are able to provide a reliable service.
Kelly, who works as a bus driver at TCAT, said that the public would be “rightfully concerned” to worry about TCAT’s abilities to be able to provide service. “And I think the public needs to know, as well as the board of directors, that this is where we’re at. The word is you’ve got people in this union that are willing to go on strike. This is what it means to them, and this is a potential impact that it could have on the people in Tompkins County.”
Correction: The TCAT Board of Directors meeting in which TCAT’s General Manager Scot Vanderpool told board members about missed bus trips was originally reported as being on Dec. 8. It was on Dec. 1.