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Talks resume to end Phoenix area bus strike

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Striking bus drivers and management in the Phoenix area resumed talks late on Thursday to end a strike that left some 57,000 weekday commuters scrambling to find rides to work during the morning rush hour.

The strike over pay and conditions shut down about 40 bus routes on Thursday including ones that serve the cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe and others that reach Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Most bus routes were operating in Phoenix itself, which is served by a different company than First Transit, and the light rail system for the Phoenix Valley was not idled.

The Amalgamated Transit Union and First Transit, a company that operates on behalf of the Valley Metro public agency, have been embroiled in bitter talks since the beginning of the year to forge a labor contract for about 400 bus drivers.

"We are doing this (strike) because they refuse to bargain with us in good faith," Bob Bean, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433, told Reuters. "The public needs to know that we would go back to work if they were fair to us."

Union leaders said the main sticking points were the company's attempt to gain greater control over workplace conditions and its ability to fire employees. Other areas of dispute include the firm's attempt to increase workers' healthcare contributions.

First Transit said talks to end the strike resumed on Thursday, and progress had been made. The firm said it had offered employees guaranteed salary increases ranging from 7 to 50 percent over three years, as well as healthcare concessions, although no settlement had been reached by late evening.

On Wednesday, union officials reported that 95 percent of its drivers had voted to reject First Transit's best-and-final offer. Another last-minute proposal by management failed to avert the strike, which went into effect at midnight.

A spokeswoman for First Transit could not immediately be reached for comment.

Scott Somers, Valley Metro chairman and a Mesa city councilman, said the union's decision to strike represents a major blow to "our most vulnerable neighbors."

Valley Metro urged commuters to consider alternatives such as car-pooling or working from home and urged patience from its riders.

Spokeswoman Susan Tierney said there have been discussions about implementing a skeleton service for affected riders, but that no decision has yet been made.

"We continue to look at a contingency plan," she said. "We do hope that this agreement can be finalized soon so we can get back to our regularly scheduled service."

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, editing by Patrick Graham)

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