One-day strike by TriMet Lift operators leads to agreement


About 75 members and allies of ATU Local 757 picket at TriMet’s main office in Southeast Portland May 9 during a one-day strike by lift operators who work for First Transit Inc. The action moved the foreign-based company to return the bargaining table, where a tentative agreement was reached May 12.

A one-day strike by TriMet Lift drivers May 9 has resulted in tentative contracts following marathon bargaining sessions May 10-11.

Details of the agreement were not released by the workers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757. Lift drivers will vote on the contracts sometime this month.

Lift operators are employed by First Transit, Inc., which subcontracts with TriMet in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties to transport senior and disabled people who can’t use regular mass transit in the TriMet service area. Transit agencies are required to provide lift service to the elderly and disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Lift operators in Multnomah and Washington counties are represented by Local 757 under separate collective bargaining agreements. Lift operators in Clackamas County and all call-center dispatchers are nonunion.

First Transit is a business unit of FirstGroup, a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar corporation headquartered in Aberdeen, Scotland. FirstGroup also owns First Student, which provides school bus transportation and charter services; First Services, which provides vehicle maintenance and ancillary services; First Canada, which provides school transportation, transit management and contracting services in Canada; and Greyhound.

ATU’s collective bargaining agreement covering 115 lift operators in Washington County expired Dec. 1, 2011. In March, drivers rejected First Transit’s contract offer, 83 to 8.

The 130 lift operators that make up the Multnomah County bargaining unit voted late last year to reject the company’s offer and to authorize a strike.

The union has been bargaining both contracts simultaneously.

Technically, Multnomah County lift drivers have never had a collective bargaining agreement with First Transit. The company assumed the contract of the previous lift service provider — MV Transportation. TriMet replaced MV in 2009, but before the ink was even dry on the subcontract, First Transit announced it was firing a dozen drivers and changing health and welfare benefits.

ATU called foul, saying such action would violate Section 13(c) arrangements it had and cause TriMet to lose federal funding. Section 13(c) is part of a federal statute that requires that employee protections — including their collective bargaining agreements — be certified by the Department of Labor and in place before federal transit funds can be released to a mass transit provider.

Jonathan Hunt, president of ATU Local 757, said its 13(c) arrangement with TriMet also requires contract disputes be settled through arbitration.

Hunt told the Labor Press that after the union complained to TriMet’s then-general manager Fred Hansen about what First Transit was attempting to do, Hansen immediately intervened.

“He gave them the ultimatum to comply with the 13(c) agreement or forfeit the contract,” said Hunt.

First Transit signed an agreement with the union on Jan. 29, 2010, in which, for the most part, they agreed to comply with the 13(c) arrangement and assume the MV Transportation contract until a new deal was negotiated.

That day didn’t come until this week.

A key sticking point has been wages. At the strike rally May 9, Hunt said First Transit’s revenue under its contracts with TriMet increases 5 percent a year, yet its wage offer to employees was less than 2 percent a year. The wage increase, he said, was offset by a proposal that workers pay more for their health insurance.

“This foreign corporation is sucking huge profits out of the community and sending those profits overseas, while the folks who work and live in the community are being shafted. And TriMet is standing by and allowing them to get away with it,” said Hunt.

Hunt said First Transit refused the union’s request for arbitration and that current TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane refused to intervene, claiming the Section 13(c) agreement on arbitration didn’t apply to their lift service contractors.

“McFarlane is taking a position contrary to all of the general managers before him,” said Hunt.

At a recent TriMet board of directors meeting, McFarlane, when responding to calls from the union and members of the public to bring the paratransit service in-house in order to save millions of dollars, said that if lift operators became public employees they would be subject to the no-strike law and that would not be good for getting a timely resolution of a contract.

“It is clear that McFarlane wants employees to strike, rather than prevent a disruption of service,” said Hunt. “Well, it looks like McFarlane’s wish came through.”

Pickets went up at 5 a.m. on May 9 at the TriMet administration building at 4012 SE 17th Ave., Portland. The strike rally was held at 11 a.m. But before it was over, Hunt announced that First Transit had agreed to a federal mediator’s request to return to the bargaining table.

The sides met May 10 without resolution. They reconvened on May 11, finally coming to terms at 1 a.m. on May 12.


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