Heidi Gentis offered rides to strangers during the RTA strike.
Photo: Josh Sweigart
Photo: Josh Sweigart

Riders struggled during RTA strike

Strike’s impact, budget woes won’t end with deal.

As representatives of the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority and union officials haggled over pay and benefits amid a bus driver strike last week, 24-year-old Heidi Gentis played the role of chauffeur.

“Do you need a ride?” she yelled to Chuck Bond as the 50-year-old pushed a Walmart shopping cart containing two grocery bags, a case of Sprite and his walking cane down the sidewalk along South Dixie Drive in the pouring rain.

Bond smiled and climbed into her Subaru. As he got out at his house about half a mile away, he offered the kind stranger money for the ride.

“No, it’s OK. Don’t worry about it,” said Gentis, who has two jobs but took the time because she said she wanted to do what she could to minimize the strike’s toll on the estimated 30,000 riders a day who rely on the RTA for everything from getting to and from work or school to being able to keep their medical appointments.

Other riders on Thursday, the fourth and last day of the strike, included a homeless Marine Corps veteran and a couple who just moved here from New York.

The buses started running again Friday, but the lasting impacts from the strike could drag on well beyond Tuesday’s scheduled vote on the contract by the RTA board of trustees and the union.

The tentative agreement, obtained by the Dayton Daily News using Ohio public records laws, includes 2 percent pay raises every year through 2019, a 2 percent lump sum payment totaling $465,754 to make up for there being no raises in 2015. It also leaves the door open for another strike if union members don’t like the negotiated health care costs.

RELATED: RTA’s union deal could be reopened by June, allowing another strike

It’s unclear what the total cost of this and lost revenue will be for RTA, which is currently operating with a shortfall in its budget, but the strike was felt far and wide, hitting social service agencies, schools and businesses. And its ripple effects could spread across the state. State lawmakers say they are crafting legislation to prevent a transit strike from happening again here or anywhere else in Ohio.

Although the strike caught many by surprise, records reviewed by this newspaper show it was years in the making, as union and management fought over pay, benefits, working conditions and even the type of bargaining that occurred. Union president Glenn Salyer was arrested for trespassing on RTA property as he handed out literature.

When the picket signs went up last week, it was people like Phil Sexton who suffered.

Sexton said he lost his job as a security guard because his boss told him he needed to find a way to work during the strike.

“Now I have to find a new job,” he said.

Stalled talks

ATU Local 1385 represents about 75 percent of the RTA workforce. These 456 members are fixed-route and Project Mobility drivers, mechanics, building and grounds personnel, utility cleaners, janitors and line crew personnel, according to RTA documents.

The prior contract between RTA and ATU Local 1385 expired on April 1, 2015. According to RTA CEO Mark Donaghy’s account, the parties “never spent any substantive time in traditional face-to-face bargaining,” instead engaging in two forms of dispute resolution: mediation and fact-finding.

RELATED: Beyond RTA negotiations, GOP and Democrats at odds over future strikes

In a Dec. 29 response to a union request for binding arbitration, Donaghy blamed the union for not committing to traditional bargaining.

“I have always felt that was a mistake on your part and truly believe that had you worked in good faith with us at the table a successor agreement would have been achieved last year, just as it has been dozens of times in the past between the parties,” Donaghy wrote Salyer.

A State Employment Relations Board fact-finder was appointed to the case on the last day of August 2015, and the parties agreed to meet three months later at the Marriott at the University of Dayton for two days of talks.

But those talks stalled on Dec. 11, 2015, so the parties decided to seek a fact-finding hearing five days later. Under Ohio law, fact-finders consider, among other criteria, past bargaining agreements, the interest and welfare of the public and the ability of the employer to finance the settlement.

“From the outset, the fact-finder cautioned the parties that he was reluctant to address such a significant number of issues from an existing contract,” fact-finder William C. Binning wrote in the 60-page report detailing 17 outstanding issues in the contract. “Many of the work-related, non-economic issues are best settled at the bargaining table.”

Heidi Gentis offered rides to strangers during the RTA strike.
Photo: Staff Writer

Cut off from school, services

No one felt the affects of the strike as acutely as people like Sexton, who was offered a ride by Gentis as he trudged in the rain through the mud along Edwin C. Moses Boulevard. The Marine Corps veteran was staying at a homeless shelter and was making his way to the Job Center, where he hoped to start another job search.

Sexton is one of thousands of people who rely on the RTA to access county services.

The Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission gives out dozens of bus passes every month to veterans. They offered cab rides to veterans needing to get to the VA Medical Center during the strike.

RTA DRIVERS’ STRIKE: 5 times American transit workers walked off jobs

Montgomery County Job and Family Services officials say 2,800 people on food stamps and 240 on welfare get a $55 a month transportation allowance they can use to buy a bus pass. Another 1,400 get bus passes to get to Medicaid-funded medical appointments. During the strike, the county hired a vendor to provide the transportation.

“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of people through our front door the last three days,” said Melissa Fowler, spokeswoman for the Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley. She said Goodwill saw maybe a third of the 100 or so people a day who come to the building for help with job training, computer access, addiction and mental health counseling and other issues.

“(The strike) means they don’t have access to these services,” Fowler said.

Roughly 1,000 of Dayton Public Schools’ 3,800 high school students ride RTA buses to school each day. District officials said high school attendance was about 300 students lower than normal on the first day of the strike, then about 160 lower than normal the last three days.

Out of work

Carl and Angela Floyd were walking to the West Carrollton library when Gentis offered them a ride. The young couple moved here from New York and were livid about the strike.

“I literally depend on the RTA because I don’t have anybody out here to drive me around, and I kind of already don’t know where everything is,” Angela said. “I’m literally trapped in the house. No work. No business. No doctors appointments. I can’t even set up nothing in the future because these idiots want to go on strike.”

Carl was overjoyed to learn buses would start running Friday, so he could get to a scheduled job interview.

“Too bad you can’t sue them,” he said of the stress he had been feeling. “I’ve been waiting a month for a job.”

Gentis said she had talked to people walking miles to work. One person she picked up was headed to Plato’s Closet to sell his clothes because he works at the RTA hub and his job was closed.

Businesses at the hub felt the strike as well.

“It’s been slow. Very slow. You don’t see any people,” said Greg Taylor, who works at TNT Fashions next to the hub.

Union fight

Negotiations between the union and RTA dragged on through 2016. The union argued its pay paled in comparison to other transit authorities in the state, and it was unhappy with the amount the agency was asking members to kick in for health insurance.

The agency countered it could not afford more and insisted on a high-deductible plan.

“There seems to be a misconception out there on the street that we’ve just got buckets of money to just throw wherever it needs to be thrown. That is not true,” said RTA board member David Williamson at the board’s January meeting. “This organization is running at a deficit.”

The RTA’s 2017 budget includes a potential $2.85 million shortfall. Williamson said it’s too early to say whether the agency needs to make cuts to address the deficit or find revenue to make up the difference.

An indication of how much rancor was building between the RTA and the union came in August when Salyer was arrested for trespassing while passing out literature downtown near — or on, depending on which party tells the story — the Wright Stop Plaza boarding platform.

“I think they saw me out there and said, ‘we’re going to get him,’” Salyer said in a newspaper interview last month. “Do I take it personal? No. Do I think they did it on purpose? I think so.”

Donaghy authored a memo — obtained by the Dayton Daily News — to RTA’s board of trustees and management team that night.

“We have had multiple violations of the code by Salyer including one in 2012 … in which he intentionally defied the code and my attempts to get him not to violate it, another in 2014 … which resulted in loss of building access privileges for some time and again in 2015 he wanted to violate the code,” Donaghy wrote, adding, “I will not attempt to guess what his motivation (is) for this act although the timing is of course interesting considering the state of contract talks.”

Salyer last month indicated his attorney would file a motion to dismiss his criminal trespass charge in Dayton Municipal Court. As of Thursday, no such motion had been filed. A criminal trial, for which RTA employees have been served subpoenas, is set for Feb. 28.

‘They need a ride’

In October, as the stalemate continued, the union publicly threatened a strike, bringing a strong response from Donaghy.

“I hope there’s a zero chance — I think that would be a mistake for them and certainly a mistake for our community to try to hold the community hostage to try to achieve their demands,” Donaghy said at the time.

But the union authorized the strike in November and filed the necessary paperwork in late December. On Jan. 3, six days before the strike deadline, ATU Local 1385 member Matt Trimble addressed the board and suggested that tension between Donaghy and Salyer was part of the problem.

“These two men admitted something in the media last week that employees at RTA have known for a while: They don’t particularly like each other,” said Trimble, a service repair man. “The effects of this relationship have been felt by the employees for some time now and it’s about to be felt by the entire community.”

Board members at the meeting expressed disagreement.

“The situation between the union, is between the union and the RTA, not the union and Mark Donaghy,” said Sharon Howard, a Montgomery County appointee.

Added Franz Hoge, the City of Kettering’s board appointee: “I firmly believe that if the union members knew the entire history of this negotiation, they would feel differently about this process than they presently are.”

Despite a last-minute effort to settle the impasse at the bargaining table, the strike commenced at 12:01 a.m. on Monday.

Gentis said she learned a lot about the variety of people who rely on the RTA as she drove them to appointments and workplaces. Some were starting new jobs. Some were without transportation because their car broke down. Some didn’t own a car and just needed a ride somewhere.

“I just figured I would help my community out,” Gentis said in explaining her motivation.

Martin Moles was grateful for the assistance.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Moles told Gentis as she stopped in front of his apartment near the Dayton Mall after a trip to the credit union. “You’re probably one of the coolest people I know.”

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Staff Writers Jeremy P. Kelley and Cornelius Frolik contributed reporting.

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