By Alfredo Santana
MONTEBELLO — The labor union representing bus drivers in Montebello has accused city leaders of offering meager wage increases, with some operators threatening to strike if negotiations stall again.
Antonio Herrera, president of the Montebello SMART United Transportation Union Local 1701, whose members include bus operators, mechanics, service workers and store keepers for the Montebello Bus Lines, said at a recent City Council meeting that current wages are below market level, and a proposal to raise salaries over a 10-year span by 1 to 3% a year is not enough to counter inflation and high rents.
Addressing Mayor David Torres and council members for the second time this year, Herrera said bus operators have been working without a contract since December 2021.
Then the collective bargaining contract called for a 3% increase on 2022 wages, and 8% pay increases retroactive to 2020 and 2021, with the caveat that drivers picked up their share of retirement costs.
He indicated the current formula sidesteps additional salary increments, and only they would happen if performance evaluations are fitting.
“What is guaranteed is that the cost of living is going up, our rent will increase, cost of food and utilities will go up, [along with] our health insurance,” Herrera said to Torres, Assistant City Manager Arlene Salazar and City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, all representing the city’s bargaining side.
A bus operator job posting in the city’s website advertises a starting salary ranging from $43,068 to $54,972 a year, plus a CalPERS pension and training for workers searching to obtain a class B commercial driver’s license.
Those salaries, broken into hourly wages, amount to a minimum of $20.70 and a top of $26.42, excluding health and other benefits.
Herrera compared the latter with the $28 an hour the city of Commerce Municipal Bus Lines currently pays its drivers.
Michael Chee, Montebello’s director of public affairs and information technology, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the city’s offer.
Cecilia Lopez, an Montebello bus driver and chair of Local 1701, slammed city leaders for conducting a study three years ago that concluded bus operators earn 14% less than colleagues hired at regional transportation agencies such as Long Beach and Santa Monica, and doing nothing to close that gap.
She said a 30% hike on health insurance premiums this year put the squeeze on senior and new bus operators, and underscored that lower wages contribute to staff shortages.
“The city continues to putus aside like we don’t matter, as if our jobs aren’t significant enough,” Lopez said. “You guys need to prioritize the MBL. We bring in the money to Montebello. Share the wealth with all employees.”
Barbara Ruiz, a 10-year bus operator, said drivers feel unsafe because the city’s police officers are not allowed to board the buses, and that drivers are continuously harassed and attacked by homeless passengers high on drugs or alcohol.
“Yet the city refuses to give us a raise. That is unjust and demoralizing,” Ruiz said. “I’m sorry, but enough is enough. I say strike, strike, strike.”
According to the Montebello Bus Line website link, the transportation agency runs a fleet of 66 buses, and is the third largest municipal system in Los Angeles County, behind Long Beach Transit and Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus.
The system operates eight bus routes through the cities of Alhambra, Bell Gardens, Commerce, La Mirada, Montebello, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, Rosemead, South Gate and Whittier, with some extending to Boyle Heights, downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles.
In addition, Herrera said the proposed wage increases of 42 and 67 cents per hour are not serious compared to annual inflation measured at 6% in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
He commended the council for restarting wage negotiations as part of the agenda’s closed session discussions last month, and urged officials to be better employers to entice new applicants to fill in vacancies and keep current staff.
“Montebello received millions in COVID relief, but we’ve only seen an increase in hiring administrators,” Herrera said. “Many buses are not going out on the road, leaving many residents, people who work or shop on Montebello waiting longer than they should.”
Scott Swaitek, general chairman of SMART Local 1701 bus operators with offices in Leadwood, Kansas, did not return two phone calls asking to elaborate on how much the union wanted salaries to improve, and the number of drivers standing to benefit from a new contract.