ATU talks at TriMet off to a bumpy start

Bargaining for a new union contract at TriMet reached an impasse before talks even started.

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 and TriMet have been wrangling for several weeks over whether or not negotiations should be open to the public and to the media. The union wants them open. TriMet does not.

The dispute stalled talks that were scheduled to begin Nov. 30 — the day the current contract expired. The sides are asking the courts to decide the matter.

“We look forward to quickly resolving this issue and moving forward with negotiations,” said ATU President Bruce Hansen. “Once that occurs, negotiations can begin.”

However, in a Nov. 30 press release, TriMet said ATU was a “no show” to the first round of bargaining. The agency said it sent its contract proposal to the union “so it could start the 150-day clock for negotiations as required by state statute.”

The union was stunned. In a letter to TriMet’s director of labor relations, Randy Stedman, Hansen wrote: “It is surprising to learn that the TriMet management team chose to arrive … for a meeting that the parties knew in advance would not be taking place.”

The union said the “bargaining clock has not been triggered” because both parties have not met to exchange proposals, which state law requires.

Some 2,000 bus and light rail operators and mechanics represented by Local 757 are working under the terms of a contract imposed in binding arbitration last July — four-and-a-half months before it expired. State law bars Oregon public transit workers from striking; instead, if contract bargaining reaches impasse, union and management present their final offers to an arbitrator, who picks one side’s offer in its entirety. State arbitrator David Gaba picked TriMet’s offer. However, when making the announcement, Gaba said some provisions could be illegal. Five days later an administrative law judge with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) ruled that TriMet had, in fact, retaliated against the union when it canceled raises and implemented reduced health insurance benefits in January 2011.

Historically, labor contracts are extended until a new deal is reached.  Such was the case with the 2009 contract between ATU and TriMet. That all changed after the union filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint alleging that TriMet’s final contract offer was illegal because it contained language that had never before been presented at the bargaining table.

[In September 2011, ERB ruled in favor of ATU and ordered TriMet to submit a revised final offer. TriMet lost on appeal. TriMet was ordered to resubmit two more final offers before it was accepted by ERB.]

Hansen called the judge’s retaliation ruling of July 2012 a vindication. “This decision may result in a complete gutting of the recent interest arbitration decision because the arbitrator awarded the very proposal that was ruled illegal,” he said.

In August, Local 757 filed a nine-count ULP charge challenging the arbitrator’s binding award. In September 2012, TriMet filed a ULP charge against the union for obstructing implementation of the binding arbitration award.

A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2013.

To avoid further shenanigans, Local 757 wants all upcoming bargaining sessions open to the public and to the media. TriMet’s initial response to the union’s request was “no.” Hansen said the transit agency changed its position somewhat, informing him on Nov. 26 that TriMet would allow a few members of the press to attend — but only those TriMet considered “bona fide” media

“TriMet has no objection to bona fide members of the press, unaffiliated with either party, being allowed to attend negotiation sessions and cover the story,” Stedman wrote to Hansen. “TriMet would not agree to bloggers or affiliated members of the press.”

At the same time, TriMet also asked for the names of all union-side participants so that they could be screened by TriMet’s security personnel prior to bargaining sessions.

In response, Hansen wrote: “Absent an explanation and a very good reason, the union cannot agree to have your security guard screen people who attend this session. Additionally, the union also will not agree that TriMet can decide who is a  ‘bona fide’ member of the press.”

In a Nov. 28 press release, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the agency “is committed to transparency and, as a part of negotiated ground rules, will propose to invite members of the press to attend, even though all previous negotiations with past contracts have been closed sessions.”

Hansen said the union “made a commitment to our members, riders, rider advocacy groups, community stakeholders, the media and citizens of the community that they will have full access to the process in these upcoming negotiations. We intend to honor that commitment.”

Meantime, TriMet informed the ATU and its union workforce that until a new contract is approved, the imposed contract will not be extended and employees will not receive previously-scheduled cost-of-living increases and must pay increases in their health care premiums.

Moreover, active and retired members of Local 757 employed at TriMet voted Nov. 30 to pay a special assessment dedicated to contract negotiations. The assessment, which ranges from $5 to $25 a month, begins Jan. 1, 2013.

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