By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Striking bus drivers in the Phoenix area walked off the job and onto picket lines early on Thursday in a dispute over job security and conditions, 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.
"I'm pretty frustrated right now and if this continues I'm going to get angry," said Tara Rastogi, as she waited forlornly for a bus to take her from Chandler to her job at a research group in downtown Phoenix.
"For some people riding the bus is convenient. For me, it's almost the only option to get to work."
Her bus never arrived. Other commuters took to car-pooling or driving their own cars to deal with the bus strike.
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."
Bean said there was a possibility that negotiations would resume on Thursday, but no details had yet been worked out as of early afternoon.
Union leaders said the main sticking points remain the company's attempt to gain greater control over workplace conditions and its ability to fire employees. Other areas of dispute include the firm's attempt to increase workers' healthcare contributions.
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.
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."
Valley Metro urged commuters to consider alternatives such as car-pooling or working from home and urged patience from its riders.
Spokeswoman Susan Tierney said there have been discussions about implementing a skeleton service for affected riders, but that no decision has yet been made.
"We continue to look at a contingency plan," she said. "We do hope that this agreement can be finalized soon so we can get back to our regularly scheduled service."
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Gunna Dickson and Andrew Hay)