Antelope Valley transit service stalls as bus operator strike continues

Local bus service in Lancaster and Palmdale was canceled and commuter routes were cut back Monday as Antelope Valley bus operators entered the sixth day of a strike over salaries, benefits and disciplinary policies with the private firm that pays them.

The strike is the third in less than two months for the 120 operators who drive the Antelope Valley Transit Authority’s fleet of buses but who are employed by Transdev, a French company that provides drivers for dozens of U.S. transportation agencies.

The strike has created a headache for riders in the Antelope Valley who depend on buses to get to work, school and medical appointments.

Transit officials said they “tentatively” expected local bus service to resume Thursday.

Until then, commuter lines to Century City, downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley are available on limited schedules. More than a dozen local bus routes connecting Palmdale, Lancaster, Pearblossom and Lake Los Angeles will not run.

Talks between Transdev and Teamsters Local 848, the union representing operators, have broken down repeatedly since the start of the year, when a contract extension expired.

Union representatives have pushed Transdev for higher hourly wages and more employer contributions toward retirement and medical costs.

They have also petitioned California labor officials to classify the Antelope Valley Transit Authority as an employer, saying the agency funds their contract and has a say in firings.

That classification could allow union officials to bypass Transdev and negotiate directly with the public agency, said Eric Tate, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 848.

“If we’re successful, AVTA will have to look at Transdev and wonder whether it’s worth it to keep them around,” Tate said. “That could be a model that will flow to transit agencies across the country.”

That could include other Los Angeles County transit agencies that use contract labor for bus operations, including Foothill Transit and the DASH service operated by the city of Los Angeles, he said.

In an email, Transdev spokesman Scott Hagen responded: “We are the employer. We pay their wages. We provide the benefits. They are Transdev employees.”

Antelope Valley officials declined to comment on the record. A statement posted online by the transit authority called the union’s attempts to bring the agency to the bargaining table “a transparent effort to shift the dynamics of their negotiations.”

The union has also filed multiple labor complaints against Transdev, accusing the company of coercing employees and refusing to bargain in good faith, according to National Labor Relations Board documents.

Tate said Transdev originally offered a contract that would not have paid entry-level driver wages that met Los Angeles County’s mandatory annual increases. Hagen disputed those claims, saying an early draft of the company’s contract proposal had a typo.

“Obviously, once the error was identified, we corrected it immediately,” he said. The company’s latest offer would have paid drivers a starting wage of $15 per hour, he said, gradually rising to $25.46 during the first five years of service.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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