By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Nearly 125,000 bus riders in the nation's sixth-largest city braced for a possible strike on Wednesday after union drivers in Phoenix rejected a labor contract proposal and authorized a possible walk out.
Ninety-six percent of the system's 642 drivers gave the go-ahead to a strike that could come at any time, in a vote taken on Saturday through Tuesday, officials said.
"We don't want to go on strike," Bob Bean, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433, told Reuters following the vote tally.
"The bottom line is that we want to return to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract," he added.
A strike would disrupt service on 31 bus routes operated in Phoenix by Veolia Transportation.
Drivers were told to report to work Wednesday morning, but to be prepared to walk away from their jobs. No strike had been called as of Wednesday morning.
A Veolia spokeswoman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Talks between Veolia and the transit union broke off earlier this month, when the company made what it called its "best and final" offer. The two sides have been embroiled in contentious labor negotiations for more than a year.
The transit union has been working without a contract since October 2010.
At the heart of the bitter dispute are wages and benefits, such as health insurance and sick leave for Phoenix bus drivers.
Union officials said members could not go along with a 3 percent wage hike proposed by the company to be spread over five years, coupled with increased health insurance premiums. They also object to a major reduction in accrued sick leave.
"We stand ready to negotiate a fair contract, but we cannot accept an agreement in which we will make less five years from now than we do today," Bean said in a statement.
City officials are advising commuters to find alternatives to the bus in case drivers walk off the job.
In the event of a strike, Veolia is required by contract to provide a 60 percent level of normal service, equivalent to a Sunday bus schedule. But company officials have said that might take time to put those plans into effect, which could mean a more limited service.
The last major transit strike in this car-dominated southwestern city occurred in 2000, when drivers walked off the job for five days before and agreement could be reached.
(Edited by Tim Gaynor and Greg McCune)