The union that represents bus drivers and other TriMet workers picketed the transit agency’s Jan. 25 board meeting — after TriMet called its own employees’ pay and benefits “out-of-line” in a Dec. 15 e-mail to the public.
TriMet forecast a $12-17 million budget shortfall in the e-mail, and asked for public input on fare increases and service cuts, explaining that those measures were necessary because the “union leadership” had “refused to consider reasonable changes to wage increases and benefits.”
But Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 president Jon Hunt dismissed those projections at the Board meeting, saying TriMet’s “oh, we are so broke” campaign is “merely a ruse to point fingers at TriMet union workers who TriMet claims are overpaid.”
Hunt told the Board that TriMet can avoid the proposed fare hikes and service cuts by adopting other money-saving measures. TriMet could save up to $5 million a year by thinning management ranks down to the levels they were five years ago, Hunt said, and another $7 million a year by canceling contracted-out paratransit service and doing the work in-house.
Currently, TriMet pays a contractor — UK-headquartered First Transit — to run its paratransit service, known as TriMet Lift. TriMet Lift provides point-to-point transportation, by reservation, to elderly and disabled people who are unable to ride regular bus and rail transit. Hunt said his cost savings estimate was based on a 2008 study the union and TriMet commissioned.
Hunt’s statement got no response from the Board or from TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane. But TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch disputed both claims in response to a question from the Labor Press. Drawing from data in the same study, Fetsch said bringing Lift in-house would increase costs $7.5 million. And Fetsch said TriMet’s ratio of non-union to union workers is lower in the current fiscal year than three years prior — in the Operations Division.
Hunt’s Board testimony was a rare face-to-face with general manager McFarlane. Local 757 picketed McFarlane’s West Hills home Nov. 19. Hunt says the general manager has refused to meet with him, instead referring him to Randy Stedman, who was hired Nov. 14 as TriMet Executive Director of Labor Relations and Human Resources.
Stedman’s background is as a labor relations consultant. He takes credit on his web site for defeating a union campaign. In 2011 he represented Mt. Hood Community College, where he won concessions from faculty after a near-strike.
Local 757 has picketed and testified at the TriMet Board for months, but hasn’t persuaded the Board to intervene in its long-running contract dispute. And now the union may be about to lose its one sometime Board ally, Lynn Lehrbach. Lehrbach — a business rep for Teamsters Joint Council 37 and first vice president of Northwest Oregon Labor Council — was appointed by former governor Ted Kulongoski to a term that expired Jan. 5. Duke Shepard, labor liaison for Governor John Kitzhaber, confirmed to Lehrbach that the governor doesn’t plan to reappoint him. The plan is instead to replace Lehrbach with Gresham small business consultant Travis Stovall. If so, that would leave the seven-member board with no representative of organized labor.
Oregon statute doesn’t mandate a labor seat on transit district boards. On Jan. 23, the Northwest Oregon Labor Council board directed that a letter be sent to Kitzhaber, asking for Lehrbach to be retained.
Lehrbach said TriMet Board members typically serve two terms, and he’d like to serve a second term.
“They’re within their rights,” says Local 757 lobbyist Jim Markee, “but we’re somewhat disappointed in the governor’s office that they would choose to remove the labor person on the board.”
For his part, Lehrbach says he serves at Kitzhaber’s pleasure but asks that if he be replaced, he at least get a phone call from the governor.
The governor’s office also plans to appoint Bruce Warner to replace Board chair Richard Van Beveren, who resigned. Warner is a former executive director of the Portland Development Commission, and before that directed the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Local 757 represents 2,000 bus and rail operators, mechanics, and support staff at TriMet. They’ve been without a contract since Nov. 30, 2009. But the union is defending its members’ rights through legal action.
Markee won a change in state law in 2007 putting public transit workers into the category of public employees who are barred from striking — but who may resolve contracts through binding arbitration instead. Under binding arbitration, a neutral arbitrator picks whichever side’s final offer is more reasonable. But that process has been delayed many months by legal charges the union filed with the state Employment Relations Board (ERB). ERB administers the state’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, and in September, it agreed with Local 757 that TriMet wrongfully submitted a final offer to the arbitrator that was different from the final offer it had presented to the union in mediation. In a separate case, still pending, Local 757 charges that TriMet unlawfully denied cost of living increases and began deducting health insurance contributions from employee paychecks — without bargaining. TriMet’s union workers until then didn’t have to pay directly out of pocket for health insurance — something which used to be standard for workers. Premiums are now $1,500 a month.
Meanwhile, Hunt and others at Local 757 are concerned TriMet may try to change the law that requires binding arbitration. In a Jan. 16 editorial that Hunt says might as well have been written by TriMet management, The Oregonian editorial board warned that what the legislature gives, it can take away. Markee, the Local 757 lobbyist, said TriMet tried unsuccessfully to get a pre-session committee hearing about it. Fetsch, the agency spokesperson, said TriMet doesn’t intend to pursue such legislation in the February 2012 short session.
As for the long-awaited contract arbitration, Hunt said it could begin as early as March.