Bus drivers have voted to authorize a strike as their union enters negotiations with the company in charge of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority’s staffing. No strike has been called yet, and union leaders hope to reach a settlement by the end of the week.

“A lot of people think it’s just money,” says Herman Smith, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union chapter. “I mean, it is money, but the money’s not the only thing.” Most of the CARTA bus drivers and customer service representatives are members of the local ATU chapter (95 of the 120 employees in those areas, by Smith’s estimate), and they all work for Veolia Transportation, an Illinois-based private company that has a contract with CARTA.

Smith gives a laundry list of complaints from union members, who voted in January to authorize a strike if necessary. Employees are being called in to attend meetings without full compensation, getting inadequate sick-leave days, working under unsanitary conditions, and being forced to work overtime, he says. Their last pay increase was in July 2010, he adds, and drivers have to stay at work without pay, sometimes spending 14 hours to get paid for eight hours’ work. He explains that drivers bid for four-hour shifts, so, for instance, a driver could drive a route from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and then have to sit and wait at CARTA’s headquarters on Leeds Avenue until he gets a second shift in the afternoon.

“I really don’t want to strike, but if it comes to that, it comes to that,” Smith says. “I’m tired of watching the drivers suffer.”

Christine Wilkinson, executive director of CARTA, says bus operations will not be affected during negotiations. “Veolia will continue to operate service without interruption to the general public,” she writes in an e-mail. “CARTA will continue to monitor performance of its routes and keep the public updated on this issue.”

The two parties involved in the talks are Veolia and the ATU. At a chapter meeting in January, workers voted to authorize a strike after finding an initial contract offer unsatisfactory. Representatives from Veolia and the ATU are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning to discuss a renegotiated contract. Smith says that if a satisfactory agreement is not reached on Wednesday, the union will begin preparations for a strike.

CARTA has had to cancel routes and raise fares in recent years to balance its budget, but it accepted a windfall offer in December and will get a $3 million funding boost from the Federal Transit Administration over the next four years. Smith thinks the Veolia’s treatment of its drivers is not based on financial troubles at CARTA.

“I’m not at liberty to say what I think it is, but you know, the mechanics are predominantly white and the drivers are predominantly black,” Smith says. Mechanics belong to a different union and are not involved in the current labor dispute.

William Hamilton, an attorney and coordinator of the independent rider advocacy group East Cooper CARTA Riders, says CARTA is doing better than most transit systems in the U.S., despite a stormy past of political upheavals. Overall ridership is up 17 percent over last year, and February was a record-breaking month, with 377,228 passengers.

“Everyone involved knows the continued and successful operation of this transit system meets desperately important human needs,” Hamilton says. “We believe both the driver’s union and management are committed to successfully reaching a fair and functional agreement on all the issues which connect us. It is our intent to support all parties and the community in an effort to reach agreement without an interruption of transit services.”

The story has been revised from its original form to clarify the fact that the people who drive CARTA’s buses are employees of Veolia, not of CARTA.

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