ATU dispute with TriMet persists; conciliator called in

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 employed at TriMet are planning an informational picket Wednesday, Jan, 26, from 8 to 9 a.m. at the Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Avenue, Portland. TriMet’s board of directors is scheduled to meet at that location starting at 9 a.m.

Drivers and mechanics have been embroiled in a lengthy labor dispute with the transit agency since Nov. 30, 2009. That’s the day the union contract covering 2,000 bus and rail operators, mechanics, and support staff expired. State law prohibits transit workers from striking. Contract disputes are settled by binding arbitration. As the two sides waited for the arbitration process to play out, TriMet maintained the terms of the previous contract, covering all scheduled wage and insurance increases. That all changed Jan. 1, 2011, when the transit agency halted cost-of-living wage increases and started taking money out of workers’ paychecks to cover a portion of their health insurance costs.

Tri-Met General Manager Neil McFarlane had forewarned workers of the change in a letter to them last September.

Shortly after that announcement, ATU Local 757 President Jon Hunt filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, accusing TriMet of retaliation. [After bargaining over the required 150-day time period, an impasse was declared between the two sides on July 13, 2010. When the sides submitted their “last best and final” offers to the arbitrator, TriMet’s proposal contained issues that were never raised at the bargaining table. The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint, charging the agency with bad-faith bargaining. The ULP delayed the arbitration process.]

ATU held informational pickets outside TriMet board meetings in November and December, and protested at McFarlane’s home Dec. 8.

Hunt has told the board, and anyone who will listen, that TriMet would be breaking the law by making changes to the contract without union member agreement.

Union members also testified at board meetings to illustrate how the changes would impact them financially.

At one board meeting, director Lynn Lehrbach (an officer of Teamsters Joint Council No. 37) made a motion that TriMet not implement the costs on workers and retirees while awaiting the arbitrator’s decision. The motion failed to get a second.

“As I pleaded with the board to take time to discuss this issue and reflect on the stories they had heard, board member Tiffany Sweitzer walked out on us,” Hunt said.

The union then reached out to the governor, congressmen, and U.S. senators, all of whom have sent letters or made phone calls to McFarlane encouraging him to return to the bargaining table to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible.

Before leaving office, Gov. Ted Kulongoski asked state conciliator Robert Nightingale to “clear his schedule” in order to assist the sides in resolving the dispute. A meeting has been set for Friday, Jan. 28.

“We have been put in a very difficult position by McFarlane and the TriMet board, who seemingly do not care about the laws in the State of Oregon, the wishes of the state’s top government officials, adhering to past practice, employee relations or health and welfare of their own employees, retirees, and their families,” Hunt said.

Hunt is asking union members, their families and friends to join him at the rally Jan. 26. He said a large crowd will help send a loud message to McFarlane and the TriMet board to reach an agreement.

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