By David Schwartz
(Reuters) - Union bus drivers reached a contract agreement with managers on Sunday to end a four-day strike that left 57,000 Phoenix-area commuters scrambling for alternate routes to work, officials said.
Union officials said striking drivers are expected to return to work in time for the Monday morning commute after marathon negotiations produced a tentative three-year pact between Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 and bus operator First Transit Inc, which is part of FirstGroup Plc.
"It's been a long, hard fight and we feel we have a good contract to take back to our members," said Bob Bean, the union local's president. "We're happy we got it done today so the public has access to buses again and kids can go to school tomorrow."
The Arizona strike left riders on 40 mostly suburban routes without service in the cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe and other routes that reached into Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Most bus routes serving Phoenix are run by different companies and were not affected. A limited light rail system that serves the Phoenix valley also remained running.
Negotiators hammered out the final contract details in a 24-hour-plus bargaining session that ended at midday on Sunday. The deal included what union officials said were last-minute agreements on time spent on the job by drivers and health care contributions.
No wage-related details were immediately released. The pact must be approved by rank-and-file bus drivers, with voting to occur over the next 10 days.
The union's Bean said picket lines will be withdrawn immediately as a show of good faith.
Nick Promponas, First Transit's senior vice president, said the company was confident that the agreement "serves the best interests" of all those involved.
"While we regret that a strike was not averted during the course of the negotiations, we appreciate that the ATU (union) has shared our desire to resume transit service throughout the community as quickly as possible," Promponas said in a statement.
First Transit and union officials were 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.
During the strike, commuters had to drive their own vehicles, carpool, bicycle or walk to work in more than 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
The agreement came just in time for thousands of students who take to the bus to and from school. Schools will start for many students on Monday.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Stacey Joyce)