On Oct. 14, a chilly Friday morning, nine days after Eagle Transit drivers belonging to Teamsters Local No. 2 went on strike, Gregg Hutcheson is still picketing in front of the Flathead County public transportation provider’s building in his Carhartt coveralls. Picket signs ask motorists on Willow Glen Drive to honk if they support the drivers, and many do. Hutcheson responds with smiles and waves.
“It’s encouraging,” he says.
Eagle Transit provides bus service to 50,000 residents in the Flathead Valley each year, including specialized service for the elderly and disabled.
Hutcheson and seven other Eagle Transit employees have asked Flathead County for a wage increase of $2 per hour over the next three years, with cost of living adjustments (COLA) included. On Sept. 22, Flathead County commissioners Joe Brenneman and Gary Hall voted to give them a raise of 60 cents over the next three years, with COLA. Commissioner Bob Watne was out of town for the vote.
With the commissioner-approved raise, the highest-paid driver for Eagle Transit, 12-year veteran Betty Kemp, now makes $12.54 per hour.
According to Teamster business representative Dan Doogan, the drivers’ wage demands stem in part from the passage of a Flathead County mill levy in June 2004 that raises an extra $212,000 annually for Eagle Transit.
“The drivers are partly responsible for the awards they receive from the valley,” Doogan says. “They should get something.”
But Flathead County administrative officer Mike Pence points out that the levy was “not just for personnel costs,” but for the entire operation, which includes equipment, maintenance and fuel. The high cost of the latter, he notes, ate into any extra money the county would have had for the drivers.
On the first day of the strike, Eagle Transit continued picking up passengers in Kalispell, with administrators driving the buses. Routes in Columbia Falls and Whitefish, where Hutcheson drove, were restarted with temporary employees on Friday.
“This is a tear-jerker for me,” Hutcheson says. “There’s people drivin’ our buses.”
Talks between the union and the county on Oct. 12 failed to produce consensus, and neither side offered any timetable for the dispute to be settled.