TRANSPORATION — A City-Line Trolley rider disembarks last Friday on Mulberry Street.

It’s been a long road, but it appears Spirit of Kokomo and CityLine Trolley drivers are on their way to unionizing.

Last week, the city drivers voted to approve a contract between the city and workers that would see them joining the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2185, which already represents a myriad of city employees ranging from wastewater treatment department employees to street and traffic workers.

Now, the contract awaits approval by the Kokomo Common Council and Mayor Tyler Moore.

“It takes a lot of courage to organize, and I thank all of them … I couldn’t be prouder of them to step up and have a voice, and that’s what they have,” said Jeff Haworth, president of AFSCME Local 2185.

Last November, the Kokomo Board of Works approved a measure that set the stage for collective bargaining between the city and drivers. Since then, negotiations between the drivers and the city went through a few delays, first with the changeover to the Moore administration and then the COVID-19 pandemic. But, last week the drivers voted on, and approved, the latest iteration of the contract.

Anthony Cognata, who has been a trolley driver for the city for more than three years and also will serve as a steward once the contract goes into effect, said the workers had a majority of their demands met during the negotiations.

“I’m happy that we did get something passed because before we had absolutely nothing,” said Cognata. “I’m glad we finally have some protections in the workplace.”

The measures included in the contract that drivers sought were revisions to policies as well as scheduling matters. For example, drivers now may carry cellphones on their person while they work, albeit they must refrain from using them on their bus or trolley. This marked a reversal from a previous policy that led to some drivers receiving unpaid suspensions.

Similarly, the drivers now have two-day paid vacations on Christmas and Thanksgiving, whereas they didn’t before. They also garnered 24 hours of paid personal leave and one week of paid vacation that increases based on how long they’ve worked in their role. Also, they will receive a 3-percent raise in 2021, and another 2-percent raise in 2022.

One matter that didn’t make the cut, which workers voiced a desire for early on in the unionization process, was making all of the CityLine and Spirit of Kokomo drivers full time. About 35 workers fill these roles in the city. However, this measure did not come to pass. Instead, three more part-time employees will be made full-time workers, adding to two existing full-time positions.

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Opinions differed on that outcome. James Goaziou, who helped spearhead the initial unionization efforts but later was no longer part of the negotiation committee, said he was displeased with this matter.

“From my view, having worked on this thing … they only were able to gain a few things in their proposal,” said Goaziou.

However, Cognata and Haworth said they were pleased with the outcome of the first contract.

“Yeah, there’s things I wish could’ve happened, but the vote overwhelmingly passed,” said Cognata. “It wasn’t even close. There’s nothing I can do but move forward and try to get what I was wanting before and accomplish it in another way.”

Those involved in the process said funding issued presented the difficulty regarding making all of the drivers full time.

“I think that’s where the biggest compromise was made between the administration and the drivers, both acknowledging the financial constraints it would put on, really, the city taxpayers,” said Moore. “This way it would allow the most benefit for them with the least amount of challenges within the budget as possible. Obviously, that’s something the city council will have to work through as they discuss next year’s budget this summer.”

But, officials noted that the matter involving full-time workers could be negotiated again once the three-year contract expired.

“This is just the starting point for us. We’ve got our foot in the door now. Now we can keep making progress from here,” said Cognata.

Now, the contract will be considered by the Kokomo Common Council, which Moore said could occur during the scheduled meeting on May 11. Then the mayor would have to sign off.

“They are representatives of the city out there on the streets, and as we’ve found out through this pandemic they are just as at risk of adverse working conditions as other workers. We’re glad to give them the opportunity to have a voice and work with us,” said Moore.