Contract talks between the company that hires drivers for the Vineyard Transit Authority and the union that represents them are set to begin next month after a three-year legal battle over the vote by drivers to join the union.

In April of this year, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that certified the election of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) to represent Island bus drivers. The court ordered Transit Connection Inc. to begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement with the drivers.

Meanwhile, escalating tension between management and drivers bubbled over this summer following an accident involving a VTA bus that injured two pedestrians.

In a full-page advertisement in today’s Gazette billed as an open letter to the Island community, ATU claims short staffing has led to fatigue among drivers.

“When a bus company puts professional drivers in that position, it creates risks,” the open letter says in part

TCI confirmed this week that it had hired Greg Dash of Dash Associates in Pennsylvania to handle bargaining talks.

“The folks on the Vineyard are going to have to be involved in the negotiations, and it makes it difficult for them in August,” Mr. Dash said. “There will be September dates, I’m just not sure what they are now.”

But ATU international vice president Bruce Hamilton called the lack of progress since April a delaying tactic.

“They’ve delayed for three years,” he said. “I understand August is their busy season, but the guy that runs the place lives down in Florida and their negotiator isn’t driving a bus. I really don’t understand why they can’t meet.”

The vote to join the union dates to 2015. Claims of technical violations led to an appeal and a second vote. When that vote was eventually upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, TCI appealed in federal court which resulted in the April decision against the company.

“They just don’t want the union,” said Richard Townes, an Edgartown resident who has worked for TCI for 21 years and was involved organizing the union. “They have a book of policies. We have to follow those policies, but they don’t. The union will do it in such a way as there’s a contract. Basically what we’re looking for is respect.”

Mr. Hamilton said when the two sides do sit down at the negotiating table, a range of issues will be up for discussion.

“We’re going to be negotiating wages, benefits,” he said. “One of the big problems that exists here is an apparent unwillingness of TCI to maintain an adequate work force. What that means is the drivers are asked to work many more hours than they really ought to work, and that leads to some safety issues.”

VTA general manager Angela Grant said it is the responsibility of TCI to maintain adequate staffing levels. She called it a difficult task given the seasonal nature of the transit demand.

“Our vehicles travel 1.2 million, 1.3 million miles per year,” Ms. Grant said. “It’s on the driver to make sure they are progressing through in a safe manner.”

There are 35 to 40 full time drivers employed by Transit Connection Inc.; the number more than doubles in the summer to about 70 full time equivalent drivers, according to Ms. Grant.

“It’s a pretty heavy lift every year to get folks here and trained to provide the type of service that we need to provide each summer,” she said.

Mr. Townes said pay for veteran drivers will be a key negotiating point. He said after 14 years with the company, employees are not eligible for any additional pay raises.

Mr. Dash said TCI drivers already earn more than many area transit companies. He said the top rate for Island bus drivers is $23.50 per hour.

He said everything will be on the table when the two sides get together.

“There is no collective bargaining agreement at the moment,” Mr. Dash said. “It doesn’t happen too often in the transit industry. You’re going into a situation where there is nothing defined. We’re always optimistic that we’ll be able to make a deal. It takes a lot of talking and a lot of give and take on both sides. It takes some understanding on both sides. In the end, there’s a deal there somewhere.”