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Tompkins County's transit workers may strike. What would it mean for riders?

City buses at a bus stop in downtown Ithaca.
Megan Zerez
City buses at a bus stop in downtown Ithaca.

Transit workers for TCAT — Tompkins County's transit system — voted last week to authorize a strike. WSKG's Megan Zerez spoke with Jimmy Jordan of the Ithaca Voice, who has been covering TCAT's labor negotiations.

MEGAN ZEREZ, WSKG: Jimmy Jordan joins me to speak about what this latest development means for TCAT's workers and riders. Jimmy, hello.

JIMMY JORDAN: Thanks for having me.

ZEREZ: So first off, the vote doesn't guarantee a strike, it just puts the option on the table. You spoke with people on both sides of the bargaining table. What does everyone think about the possibility of a strike? How likely would that be to happen?

JORDAN: I think a strike is a last resort. I should say that the bargaining unit at TCAT, their contract expired at the end of June. They are burnt out. They're kind of at their wit's end at the end of the pandemic — drivers mechanics. And, you know, they're trying to send a signal that if this contract doesn't move, that they they might very well strike. The people actually at the bargaining table, they're being tightlipped.

ZEREZ: What are some of the issues that prompted transit workers to vote that way?

JORDAN: Yeah, that's a good question. I think that for the drivers, the very long hours that they work, have driven them to this point, no pun intended. They sometimes end up working up to 14, 15 hour days. They complain that the pay is not competitive. Mechanics, they don't have those long days, but they're complaining about the pay too, that they don't feel that they aren't getting what they deserve. And, you know, it's resulted in shortages in the mechanic and driver staff at TCAT. And that's a trend that we're seeing across the country.

ZEREZ: It sounds like some of those issues are definitely affecting the people who rely on TCAT to get to work to get to school. I'm going to play a cut from Scot Vanderpool, he is the general manager of TCAT. Here he is speaking at a TCAT board of directors meeting.

SCOT VANDERPOOL: We had 903 missed trips in October. That's unbelievable.

JORDAN: Vanderpool would continue to say there that 705 of those 903 missed bus trips in October were directly caused by the mechanic shortage. There's just a huge backlog of repairs in order to be compliant with DOT standards. And if TCAT drivers do go on strike, there are people out in the rural towns of Tompkins County that are not going to have a way to get to work. It's just a difficult truth of the matter.

ZEREZ: I want to switch gears a little bit. The transit system has three main underwriters, that's Cornell, the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County. And in this year's agreement, those underwriters got a little bit more sway — some would call it veto power — over certain changes and decision making. How does the dynamic between the underwriters and TCAT change labor negotiations?

Well, they all contribute equal parts in funding to TCAT. Every year, the TCAT board of directors has the opportunity to ask those underwriters for an increase in funding. Recently, the ask was for an 8% increase for 2023. And you know that that money could go towards making TCAT salaries, benefits more competitive for its drivers and mechanics. Cornell has declined the initial 8% increase while the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County have approved it. If one goes lower than 8% and is unwilling to go up then they all have to meet at that level. They're still in negotiations, things can change. The conversation still ongoing.

ZEREZ: That was reporter Jimmy Jordan of the Ithaca Voice. Jimmy, thank you very much.

JORDAN: Absolutely.