By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Negotiators for Phoenix's bus company and union drivers will return to the bargaining table to try to avoid a strike that could affect nearly 125,000 riders on the city's transit system, officials said on Wednesday.
The return to talks was spurred after union drivers overwhelmingly voted late on Tuesday to reject a labor contract proposal and authorize a possible walk out.
Ninety-six percent of the system's 642 drivers had given the go-ahead to a strike that could come at any time in a vote taken on Saturday through Tuesday, officials said.
But officials from Veolia Transportation Services and the union later said they were working to schedule a date to meet for talks, likely to take place after the Labor Day holidays.
Bob Bean, the transit union's local president, pledged that there would be no strike for now in light of the progress being made in returning to negotiations.
"As long as we're going to meet, the buses will run," Bean told Reuters.
Val Michael, a Veolia Transit spokeswoman, said the company was hoping a labor agreement can be reached.
"We're looking forward to returning to the negotiating table and working on the issues," Michael said.
A strike would disrupt service on 31 bus routes operated in Phoenix by Veolia. Drivers reported to work as usual on Wednesday, but were prepared to walk away.
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 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 have been 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 it 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 an agreement could be reached.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)