Conciliator has TriMet and ATU talking after threat of strike

Outside a Jan. 26 TriMet board meeting, Steve Fung, last year’s Part-Time Operator of the Year, protests the agency’s unilateral change to health insurance.

Amid threats of a wildcat transit strike, a state conciliator on Jan. 28 persuaded leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 and TriMet to take a step back and try to resolve their differences.

“It’s probably the most movement we’ve seen from TriMet so far,” said Local 757 President Jonathan Hunt. “But we’re not there yet.”

A second meeting was scheduled Feb. 2 (after this issue of the Labor Press went to press).

The sides have been engaged in a labor dispute since the old contract expired Nov. 30, 2009. State law prohibits transit workers from striking and requires that all contract disputes be settled by binding arbitration.

However, at a TriMet board meeting Jan. 26, Hunt said union members — frustrated by the transit agency’s “illegal implementation” of health insurance premium copays — are ready to stop bus and train service.

“Every single day I hear from my members, ‘you guys (TriMet) are breaking the law, you don’t care about binding arbitration, so why should we?’” Hunt said. “ I’m telling you, our group is asking and going to put forward reductions within our workforce; you are going to have service stopped. You are telling us, ‘the law means nothing.’ ”

The union has filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints with the Oregon Employment Relations Board. One alleges that TriMet changed its bargaining position when petitioning for arbitration in July 2010. The other is for unilaterally changing their agreement over health insurance costs, a move the union says was in retaliation for filing the first ULP.

TriMet had been honoring the terms of the expired contract until this year, when it started charging active and retired members for a portion of their health insurance premiums. The increase in monthly out-of-pocket costs ranges from $15.31 to $234.70, depending on the carrier and coverage.

The Oregon Employment Relations Board isn’t expected to hear the cases until May. But 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. The Jan. 28 meeting proved fruitful.

Meantime, the union has been holding large rallies prior to TriMet board meetings to inform the public of the alleged illegal actions, and packing those meetings to plead with board members to get TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane to rescind his order on health insurance copays.

The seven-person TriMet board of directors is appointed by the governor.

“Somehow there is this perception we’re not willing to move on health insurance copays,” Hunt told the Labor Press. “That’s just not true. But you can’t shove it down our throats and expect us to say ‘thank you.’ ”

At the Jan. 26 board meeting, Hunt said TriMet was getting “bad advice” from its attorneys — advice that ultimately could cost the agency millions of dollars in backpay and penalties.

He offered to pull the two unfair labor practice complaints if TriMet reversed the change in health insurance and returned to the bargaining table.

“In one day,” Hunt told the board, “we could deal with these unfair labor practice issues and come to an agreement on a new contract, if TriMet is willing to recognize what we see as unlawful actions and put a stop to them.”

Hunt also invited board members to sit in on negotiations to see first-hand what is being proposed.

“I’ll commit to (bargain) every single day that Mr. McFarlane will commit,” Hunt said. If at the end of the day, an agreement can’t be reached, Hunt suggested the sides sign a joint letter to the governor asking for expedited arbitration to get the contract settled.

As Hunt was talking about a possible work stoppage, TriMet board president Richard Van Beveren interrupted, telling him to wrap up quickly, otherwise, he would adjourn the meeting.

Board member and Teamsters official Lynn Lehrbach attempted to ask a question, but Van Beveren refused it.

“I’m not recognizing your question,” Van Beveren said.

“You’re shutting me off, Mr. Chairman?” Lehrbach asked.

“Yes,” Van Beveren retorted, saying that the board had already allowed several members to speak. “I think we have given ample time, we have been very patient, and you keep going, Jon.”

In a heated exchange, Hunt said union members would not sit idly by and watch TriMet continue to break the law. He said they will attend every board meeting, with everyone signing up to testify to make sure their voices are heard.

“If we have to shut this city down, that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he said.

The union raised two other issues at the board meeting. The first concerned the safety of Type 4 light-rail trains. The union contends that the framing of the cab creates significant visual obstructions for operators, resulting in them “driving blind.”

“Until these serious safety defects are corrected, we will demand that TriMet indemnify all operators from any disciplinary actions arising out of situations which implicate the Type 4 problems,” said ATU Financial Secretary Evette Farra.

The second issue was over a recent notice by TriMet that it will no longer mediate grievances that are scheduled for arbitration.

Hunt said it is irresponsible for management, which is claiming poverty, to refuse to mediate workplace disputes. He said the average cost to mediate a grievance is $300, while the traditional arbitration process costs TriMet about $22,000 per grievance. Currently there are 91 grievances pending.

“TriMet is now forcing these cases to full-blown arbitration at an estimated cost to taxpayers of over $2 million, while they could resolve the same 91 grievances through mediation for a total cost of around $27,300,” Hunt said.

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