By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Negotiations to resolve a labor dispute between union bus drivers and management ramped up on Friday as more than 57,000 weekday commuters in the Phoenix area were forced to find alternative routes to work for a second day.
Negotiators from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1443 and bus operator First Transit returned to the bargaining table with the help of a federal mediator with hopes of ending a strike that has shut down 40 mostly suburban bus routes.
Affected by the walkout were the cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe and other routes that reach into Phoenix and Scottsdale. Most bus routes were operating in Phoenix, which is served by different providers, and the light rail system for the Phoenix Valley was not idled.
Late on Thursday, both sides reported tentative agreement on a sticking point involving job security and workplace conditions. Another issue in the dispute is the company's attempt to increase employee healthcare contributions.
"We feel optimistic that they met again this morning," said Susan Tierney, a spokeswoman for Valley Metro, the public agency that contracts for the bus service. "We're feeling somewhat hopeful ... we could have service back soon."
Tierney said calls continue to trickle into the agency's customer service line with questions about the strike and possible ways to and from work. The agency has urged commuters to carpool or work at home if possible.
First Transit and union officials have been embroiled in talks since the beginning of the year to forge a contract for the roughly 400 drivers who walked off the job early on Thursday.
Union officials reported on Wednesday that 95 percent of its drivers had voted to reject First Transit's offer. Another last-minute proposal by management failed to avert the strike.
Bob Bean, the union local's president, told Reuters that negotiations were continuing toward a resolution, but that no agreement had been reached. A spokesman for First Transit could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tierney said there have been discussions about implementing a skeleton service for affected riders, but no decision had 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 Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)