By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Every time you think the relationship can’t get any worse between TriMet and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757, it does. Oregon’s largest transit agency and the union that represents 2,000 of its workers and 1,200 retirees have been in continuous combat since 2009 — in the workplace, in the Oregon Legislature, in the legal arena, and in the court of public opinion.
For far too long, the labor agreement and the workforce have been made the scapegoats for TriMet’s financial difficulties.” — ATU Local 757 president Bruce Hansen
TriMet bus and train operators and mechanics earn wages that top out at about $
22 $29 an hour, plus pension and health benefits. (Until 2009, TriMet workers had fully-paid insurance for themselves and their families, with minimal co-pays.) But in 2009, TriMet insisted on reducing benefits to a “90/10” plan, in which employees pay 10 percent of expenses up to the out-of-pocket maximum of $1,500. When the union didn’t agree, the two sides reached impasse in bargaining for a new contract, which led to binding arbitration. In the end, the arbitrator picked TriMet’s proposal. But the union is challenging the arbitrator’s decision.
Administrative law judge Wendy Greenwald heard arguments from both sides Jan. 8 and 9. Under an expedited process, her conclusions will go directly to the three-member Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB), which adjudicates public-sector labor disputes in Oregon.
But TriMet isn’t stopping there. In December, the agency announced that it will push in the next round of bargaining for an 80/20 plan, in which employees pay 20 percent of health costs up to the out-of-pocket maximum.]
Both sides are gearing up for battle on multiple fronts. To fund their fight, Local 757 members at TriMet voted to approve a special dues assessment beginning this month that will raise upwards of $40,000 a month.
It may seem strange, but when the Oregon Legislature meets next month, TriMet plans to ask legislators to make it legal again for transit workers to strike. In Oregon, most public employees have the right to strike, but some, like police and firefighters, are barred from striking; their contracts are settled by binding arbitration when labor and management can’t agree. In 2007, lawmakers added transit workers to the category of barred-from-striking employees, at Local 757’s request. The union expected that members would achieve better results by having a neutral arbitrator pick the most reasonable of the two proposals. Washington has a similar provision for transit workers.
But in practice, binding arbitration was much messier than expected. TriMet didn’t bargain seriously before it declared impasse, ERB ruled: Management waited until the very end to detail its most important proposals, including its wage offer, and then sent to arbitrator David Gaba a “final offer” that it had never shown the union in actual bargaining. Not once but twice, ERB ordered TriMet to play fair and submit a proper final offer to the arbitrator. The legal back-and-forth took so long that the arbitrator’s decision was issued 32 months into the 36-month contract.
And the arbitrator’s decision, which might have been expected to be final, opened up a new can of worms. Gaba felt that the employer’s health care costs were too high to justify picking ATU’s offer. But he also identified items in TriMet’s offer that could be illegal and possibly unenforceable, including the need to bill workers for years of retroactive health premiums — and provisions that broke promises to retirees.
Local 757 urged members not to cooperate with attempts to collect the back premiums, and TriMet called that illegal in charges that were added to the union’s appeal of the arbitrator’s ruling, creating the consolidated case that Greenwald heard.
Since the dispute began, ERB has repeatedly ruled that TriMet violated the law, even ordering TriMet to pay union attorney fees on two occasions.
Meanwhile, the arbitrator-imposed contract has now expired, but bargaining over a new agreement has yet to begin. Local 757 says it wants bargaining to be open to the public. TriMet disagreed, and wants observers limited to certain pre-approved media, with all bargaining participants screened by security guards. Oregon law makes pretty plain that either side can choose to open public employee union negotiations to the public, but TriMet is seeking a court ruling that the law doesn’t apply in this instance. Its legal argument to Multnomah County Circuit Court is that the bargaining isn’t subject to Oregon’s public meetings law because TriMet’s bargaining team has no authority to reach agreement. But if that’s true, the union says, then TriMet is in violation of its duty to bargain in good faith under Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act. TriMet can’t have it both ways.
Though Local 757 made clear it would not negotiate in secret, TriMet sought repeatedly to embarrass Local 757, calling out the union as a “no-show” when it failed to attend bargaining sessions — sessions which were scheduled before the open meetings dispute erupted.
Those salvos were just the latest in a year-long public relations campaign TriMet has waged against its own employees and their union. In its press releases, the tax-supported public agency, its board appointed by the governor, has publicly declared union leaders unreasonable and labeled the benefits its workers have had for decades “unsustainable.”
Now TriMet says it wants to bring benefits in line with “the market.” And in its framing, it seeks to pit the public against its workers. Riders “face a future of continued service cuts in order for us to pay for these unsustainable health care benefits,” said TriMet labor relations director Randy Stedman in a Jan. 2 press release, adding that “additional service cuts … would be necessary to pay for these benefits for both active employees and retirees.”
For their part, Local 757 leaders say if bargaining is brought into the daylight, their arguments will be vindicated, and the public will be witness to TriMet management’s high-handed attitude and aggressive posture.
“The public needs to have a clearer picture of all the ways TriMet funds are spent,” Local 757 President Bruce Hansen wrote in a Dec. 18 letter to Stedman. “This transparency is key to achieving fairness for the workforce as well as the sustainable public transportation system that the citizens of our region deserve.”
“For far too long,” Hansen wrote, “the labor agreement and the workforce have been made the scapegoats for TriMet’s financial difficulties.”
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article described the 90/10 and 80/20 insurance plans as plans in which employees pay 10 and 20 percent of health care costs, respectively; in fact those percentages apply only up to an out-of-pocket maximum.]