In the months-long contract wrangle between TriMet and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, a new wrinkle appeared Sept. 28. While Local 757 officers were away attending the convention of their international union, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane sent a letter to union members announcing that the transit agency will unilaterally freeze wages as of December and require employees to start paying part of their health insurance premiums as of Jan. 1 — without the agreement of, and over the objections of the union.
That’s illegal, retorted Local 757 President Jon Hunt in a letter to members from the road.
“We believe they are misinterpreting the contract and binding arbitration law,” Hunt told the Labor Press.
Oregon’s public employee collective bargaining law does allow employers to “impose” their final offer when bargaining breaks down, but a new law covering transit agencies requires that contracts be decided by an arbitrator if the two sides can’t agree. The two sides declared impasse in July and were on the way to arbitration.
“We believe they have to keep things status quo until the mediator makes a decision,” Hunt said.
Under the previous contract, which expired Nov. 30, 2009, members got annual cost-of-living increases of 3 to 5 percent based on the Consumer Price Index, and TriMet paid 100 percent of health insurance costs. Local 757 members can choose either a traditional indemnity plan with Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield, or membership in Kaiser Permanente, an HMO. Both are going up in cost Jan. 1. Regence will rise from $2,235 to $2,461 a month for family coverage, and from $794 to $873 a month for employee-only coverage. Kaiser will go from $1,559 to $1,605 a month for family coverage, and from $519 to $535 a month for employee-only coverage. Thus, under McFarlane’s directive, TriMet would require union members to pay out of pocket $16 to $226 a month to keep the same coverage. As an alternative, TriMet is proposing no-premium-increase coverage that contains deductibles and benefit reductions.
TriMet’s health insurance costs are exceptionally high, Hunt said, but that has partly to do with the real chronic health issues that bus operators face. Like truck-driving, it’s a sedentary job that comes with occupational hazards like constant vibration, which causes musculo-skeletal problems. And bus drivers have many more stress-related illnesses than other kinds of drivers because of their contact with the public, tight schedules, and navigating through heavy urban traffic.
TriMet’s insurance costs are also higher than most because employees continue to have what used to be a standard benefit — employer-paid health insurance that covers employees and their dependents. Hunt said union members have made past compromises on pay increases to keep that benefit, and won’t just give it away.
Hunt said Local 757 will mount a legal challenge to the changes.