CARTA bus driver strike possible

One of CARTA's new low sulfur, clean diesel buses makes its way down Mary Street. (FILE PHOTO)

The union representing CARTA bus drivers has voted to authorize its leadership to call for a strike if that is judged necessary during negotiations for a new contract.

However, both sides said they are seeking a solution as the talks continue. The drivers have been without a contract since January.

“There’s no strike planned. None of us really wants to strike,” said Herman Smith, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union chapter.

“We’re giving the system a chance to work,” Smith said. “We’re still reaching out toward one another.”

Even if a strike happens, bus service will not shut down, officials said.

The ATU represents 210 workers, mostly drivers, but also some customer service staffers and dispatchers, Smith said.

They work for Veolia Transportation under a contract with the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Smith declined to elaborate on the substance of the negotiations. The two sides are scheduled to get back together for more contract talks on May 30, he said.

If a strike happens, replacement drivers could be brought in. “We’re going to continue service,” said Veolia spokeswoman Valerie Michael.

“We’re focused on negotiating. Obviously, we would like to resolve this without a strike,” she said.

The negotiations cover a range of topics including pay, hours and benefits, she said.

“It’s about everything. As the negotiations go on, things go on and off the table,” she said.

The drivers had been working under a one-year contract extension that ended in December. Veolia is seeking a three-year contract with the drivers, she said.

CARTA board Vice Chairwoman Linda Page said there is a contingency plan if a strike happens that will maintain “core services” for CARTA customers.

“Obviously, we want the negotiations to go well,” Page said.

Charleston resident Eboni Jenkins, 33, said she relies on the bus because she doesn’t have a car.

“It’s part of my daily life,” Jenkins said.

That includes trips to the grocery store, the Department of Social Services and the doctor.

“There’s just so much I depend on the bus for,” she said.

CARTA ridership is up 13 percent over last year, when the system had nearly 4.5 million passengers. Nearly 40 percent of its forecast $17 million budget for next year is from Charleston County sales tax. Cash customers provide about 17 percent of revenue.

Veolia Transportation operates bus networks in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, Atlanta, Baltimore and many other North American locations.