By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Striking bus drivers in the Phoenix area walked off the job and onto picket lines early on Thursday, leaving some 57,000 weekday commuters scrambling to find rides to work during the morning rush hour.
The strike against the First Transit company has shut down about 40 bus routes including ones that serve the cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe and others that reach Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Most bus routes were operating in Phoenix, which is served by a different company than First Transit, and the light rail system for the Phoenix Valley was not idled.
The Amalgamated Transit Union and First Transit, a company that operates on behalf of the Valley Metro public agency, have been embroiled in bitter talks since the beginning of the year to forge a labor contract for about 400 bus drivers.
"We are doing this (strike) because they refuse to bargain with us in good faith," Bob Bean, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433, told Reuters. "The public needs to know that we would go back to work if they were fair to us."
No contract talks to break the stalemate had been scheduled as of Thursday morning.
Union leaders said the main sticking points are the company's attempt to increase workers' healthcare contributions and to gain greater control over what they described as employee's workplace rights.
On Wednesday, union officials reported that 95 percent of its drivers had voted to reject First Transit's best-and-final offer. Another last-minute proposal by management failed to avert the strike, which went into effect at midnight.
A spokeswoman for First Transit could not immediately be reached for comment.
The company had said it was disappointed that labor talks had failed and the union had decided to strike, but that the firm was open to further negotiations.
Scott Somers, Valley Metro chairman and a Mesa city councilman, said the union's decision to strike represents a major blow to "our most vulnerable neighbors."
"I expect continued service with ongoing good faith dialogue," Somers said in a statement. "A strike is unacceptable and would be devastating to riders who rely on the service."
Valley Metro urged commuters to consider alternatives such as car-pooling or working from home on Thursday morning.
"I would ask people to be patient, and we hope to have the service running again as soon as we possibly can," said Susan Tierney, a Valley Metro spokeswoman.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Gunna Dickson)