At TriMet Lift, contracted bus drivers say they want a union

Photo by Russell Sanders, courtesy Oregon AFL-CIO


It’s not every day workers get to swarm their manager’s office to demand union recognition. But that’s what a group of TriMet Lift workers did Oct. 3, accompanied by a state senator, the Oregon AFL-CIO president, and the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757.

The employer is First Transit — a division of the giant UK-based multinational First Group. Under contracts with TriMet, First Transit runs TriMet Lift, a transit service for seniors and the disabled, from three Portland-area locations. At two of the locations, workers are represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, but at the SE 92nd and Powell yard, they’re nonunion. Up to now, anyway.

Workers weren’t surprised when First Transit operations manager Linda Ciavara, caught off guard, wouldn’t say whether the company will voluntarily recognize their choice to unionize. So the next morning, union supporters filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The federal agency strives to schedule an election within 42 days to determine if workers really want a union. [The fact that 112 of the 166 workers might have signed union authorization cards isn’t enough to demonstrate their choice to join a union under U.S. labor law; the employer first gets a chance to hire union avoidance consultants and go at workers at mandatory meetings.]

But on Oct. 3, at least, spirits were high as workers felt the power of the union. State Senator Laurie Monnes-Anderson was there to lend moral support, as was Oregon AFL-CIO chief Tom Chamberlain and Bruce Hansen — a 20-year TriMet driver who became Local 757 president earlier this year.

Hansen said unionizing the third TriMet Lift unit is a top priority for Local 757, and was something he campaigned on.

Pay, benefits, and fair treatment are among the reasons First Transit workers cite for unionizing, as well as the security of knowing what the rules are — and that they apply to everyone equally.

“The rules are there but you’re not sure what they are,” said driver Mary Williams, “and they’re implemented one way for some people and another way for other people.”

First Transit workers at TriMet Lift’s two unionized locations have separate collective bargaining agreements, but in both cases, they out-earn their counterparts at the non-union location, the union says. Hourly wages at the 92nd Avenue yard top out at $18.75, compared to over $21 at the two union yards. The union workers also have holiday bonuses, paid sick days, the right to a representation during discipline, and a grievance procedure, all of which the nonunion workers lack.

Matt Leist — who’s worked at the 92nd Avenue yard for 18 years as a driver, road supervisor, and trainer — said the question of whether to unionize has come up again and again. What made the difference this time, Leist said, was support from the wider union movement.

As part of an Oregon AFL-CIO pilot project, affiliated unions pool resources, and lend staff organizers when a workplace unionizing campaign is ready to snowball. In this case, full-time union organizers paired up with First Transit drivers and visited their co-workers. In the course of a three-week blitz, union support grew from the initial 20-person committee to 112 workers having signed union cards.

“This is a career; it’s not just a driving job,” said driver Roni White. “Having a union, and benefits, supports that.”


[UPDATE 10/16/12: The NLRB will conduct a union election at First Transit on Nov. 7.]

11 Comments on At TriMet Lift, contracted bus drivers say they want a union

  1. I was surprised to see the variety of drivers that were stepping up to the plate. They are quiet individuals but have good values. Keep up the good work. I did not see that senator in the picture here & also what was the purpose of the AFL-CIO?

  2. We should all be proud that we have worked hard and bonded together as one unit in this endeavor! Brothers and sisters we deserve to be treated with respect in our positions as para-transit drivers.

  3. Brothers and Sisters from Tri-Met Lift Region 3,
    Congratulations on all of your hard work and dedication
    to the labor movement. Region 1 and Region 2 have waited
    you for a long time. We welcome and support you. We respect
    you and understand that you work just as hard as we do. You
    deserve equal treatment.Srand together strong in solidarity!
    Kathleen Brown
    Liaison Office ATU 757
    Region 1 Tri-Met Lift

  4. As a newer driver at this location I was well on board to the Union movement. The unity of those involved made me feel great. Respect is one value that makes the world go around, and also makes it a better place.

  5. On Oct.4th,I went to work at the same place I have worked for 9 years.What I witnessed there that morning were the missing smiles that I haven’t seen in a couple of years,there was actually banter in the drivers area,which has been absent,since the new ownership showed up.That area I speak of was filled with scared individuals wondering if their job would be terminated,what new rule did I not follow (sorry didn’t get the memo),something new everyday,we will have an election within 42 days,do not wavier,be strong,and do not believe that’s rain rolling down your back,when they promise you nothing.RESPECT…. is worth more,being treated equal is worth more.we are Humans,we provide a great service in our community,don’t let the new ownership reduce that great pride within ourselves,we are not numbers,until Oct 3rd,at least,and the numbers have spoken.guess I said enough,don’t let the smiles go away…

  6. I would just like to say it’s a true honor to the working with my coworkers on this campaign we have worked far too long now without the respect we deserve and we won’t back down

  7. Truly excited about this! I have been here for 6 yrs and have seen significant changes in the atmosphere of our work place… sadly not for the better. As of late ,though ,its been wonderful to start my day seeing the light hearted genuine smile of a co-worker beaming back at me! A very clear twinkle that clearly states there is new camaraderie among strangers developing, a simple thing that states WE ARE UNITED!!

  8. Hey guys, I’m going on my 8th year here. I have seen a lot of mess. Mostly, “no common courtesy” for other employers. *People being chewed out for the slightest thing and not in privet,in plane sight,in front of other workers so they can degrade you. Sometimes others like to make you feel stupid. People have developed chronic illnesses over the years and don’t know just how long there job may be. For myself I have always been in the shadows, but not now. NO MORE CRAP,WE ARE ONE, WE ARE UNITED. We have light at the end of the tunnel. THANK YOU. (:

  9. I used to work at region 3 back in 2010 I was wrongfully terminated. I wish we would have had the union them. I’d still be there today. Great job guys I’m proud and miss you guys.

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