Transit Union TriMet contract comes to grief

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

On June 20, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, the agency that adjudicates public employee labor disputes. As detailed in the complaint, TriMet has basically gutted the grievance process for union workers, routinely taking months to schedule low-level meetings, ignoring its own grievance-settling commitments, and breaking public employee collective bargaining law by making changes in the workplace without notifying the union or getting employee assent.

ATU has 2,130 members at TriMet. For the last three years, they’ve been filing grievances at the rate of about five a week. That’s over 250 a year. And grievances are taking a while to process. Of the more than 130 grievances that were unresolved as of the end of 2005, over three dozen dated back to 2004.

A grievance is basically a formal complaint by a worker. Most union workers have the right to file a grievance if they believe they’ve been disciplined unfairly, or their employer has violated terms of a union contract or its own past practice. There’s no “typical” grievance, because issues are so varied, but recent examples at TriMet have included allegations of unfair termination or denial of promotion, employees working outside of their classification, having nonunion workers do the work of union workers, favoritism in assigning overtime, failure to pay the correct scale, use of outside subcontractors, and denial of family leave.

Under ATU’s contract with TriMet, grievances can go through as many as four steps before resolution.

The first step was added in 2005 as a way to cut down on the number of grievances filed. A “pre-grievance” step, it consists of an informal meeting with the worker, their immediate supervisor, and a local union officer to see if some speedy shop floor resolution can be found, for complaints that don’t involve discipline.

But ATU President Jon Hunt says that step isn’t working. Supervisors clam up, talk to higher-ups, and pass it onto the next level — Step Two. Step Two is a formal grievance, presented in writing to the department director. Then the department director, union officer and the worker filing the grievance are supposed to meet and try to reach an acceptable resolution. If they can’t, it goes to Step Three — a joint committee with two representatives from each side. The committee meets monthly to hear grievances, and then issues decisions upholding or denying part or all of a grievance. Too often, that’s not the end, and it goes to Step Four — arbitration.

Arbitration is expensive. Professional arbitrators cost $1,000 a day, and court reporters $700 a day; even more expensive is the cost of outside attorneys. So before the union commits to spending that much dues money, it goes to the Executive Board and the membership for approval.

Currently, close to 60 grievances are at the point of going to arbitration.

The union has other beefs with TriMet, including a longstanding campaign to get bathroom breaks for bus drivers. But it’s the grievance issue that threatens to bankrupt Local 757 — or force it to give up defending some of its members — if every complaint, no matter how small, becomes a lengthy and expensive ordeal.

It became an issue in the recent internal union election, with some candidates for union office objecting to falling bank balances and soaring expenditures on attorneys fees and “professional services.”

Much of those professional services were provided by arbitrators and court reporters, Hunt said. Hunt was the local’s vice president, and won the election in June to replace retiring president Al Zullo.

Hunt says the union has an obligation to defend its members, even when that gets expensive. But he’s unhappy that so many grievances aren’t being resolved quickly or cheaply.

“It’s painful,” Hunt said. “They’ve tried to run our reserves down.”

And Hunt thinks its intentional.

Bob Nelson, TriMet’s executive director of operations, downplayed the problem, saying he doesn’t see the grievance process as broken.

“I think it’s working,” Nelson said.

Nelson acknowledges the number of grievances is up since the contract was signed, but attributes that to the newness of some contract terms. And some of the delay in scheduling, he says, comes from the fact that bus operators aren’t at the same physical location as their supervisors.

Supervisors know they have the authority to resolve issues at the first step, he said, and aren’t required to check with superiors. Nelson said management is working to reduce the backlog at higher levels.

Come what may, ATU officers are keen to make sure the contract is enforced.

Local 757 members agreed to an unusually long union contract — six years — because TriMet offered security, increasingly rare in union contracts these days. Bus operators and mechanics make over $22 an hour, and under the contract get annual cost-of-living raises and all benefits maintained at the current rate, even as the cost of health coverage rises. The contract won’t expire until Nov. 30, 2009.

In April, the union tried to get the attention of TriMet general manager Fred Hansen with an open letter on the front-page of a special issue of the union newsletter. Hunt said Hansen responded. They met, but so far haven’t resolved the grievance issue.

To get results, the union is considering going public, relying on the fact that TriMet is to some extent a political agency. The union will likely start by taking its complaint to the TriMet Board of Directors, whose seven members are appointed by the governor of Oregon.