Latest TriMet provocation: ‘Paid union orientations are illegal’

MAKING A STAND: About three dozen members and supporters of ATU Local 757 mobilized for a March 23 TriMet board meeting, and stood up as leaders and allies asked the board for more a respectful tone from management.
MAKING A STAND: About three dozen members and supporters of ATU Local 757 mobilized for a March 23 TriMet board meeting, and stood up as leaders and allies asked the board for more a respectful tone from management.

If the 2014 vote approving a new union contract at Trimet was supposed to signal a new era of labor peace, it was short-lived. Leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 say Oregon’s largest public transit agency has returned to its previous pattern of anti-union provocations. The latest: TriMet management is ending its decades-old practice of letting new hires go to the union hall on paid time to attend union orientation, citing legal advice that doing so violates a new Oregon law and the Oregon Constitution.

That’s news to Jeff Klatke, president of 25,000-member Oregon AFSCME. Klatke says AFSCME has plenty of public sector contracts that allow new member union orientation to take place on paid work time — including the contract that covers lawyers at the state attorney general’s office.

“You should be concerned about the quality of legal counsel you have received,” Klatke told the TriMet board of directors at its March 23 meeting. Klatke was part of a delegation of ATU officers and allies that called on board members to intervene before the acrimony worsens. The current contract covering 3,200 current and former TriMet employees expires Nov. 30, 2016, and the two sides expect to begin negotiations this summer.

The entire labor community is concerned about poor labor-management relations at TriMet. TriMet management sets a bad precedent, and their conduct sends a bad message to other public employers.” — Oregon AFL-CIO secy.-treasurer Barbara Byrd

TriMet senior labor relations manager Christine Stevens explained the rationale for ending paid union orientation in a Feb. 5 memo to Local 757 president Shirley Block. Any TriMet employee may go to ATU’s offices on their own time outside of their normal working hours, the memo says. But for TriMet to allow “newly hired union employees to go to the ATU offices on District paid time for purposes of orienting them to their membership in ATU” would be unlawful under a 2013 law, Stevens wrote.

That law, ORS 243.670, says a public employer may not use public funds to assist, promote or deter union organizing. It was drafted by pro-union legislators, and was meant to stop public employers from spending public money fighting union campaigns — like University of Oregon, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal work to frustrate and delay a union campaign by college professors. Nothing in the bill’s legislative history suggests that it was supposed to apply to already unionized workers, or that it was supposed to ban union orientation from taking place on paid time.

“That is a real distortion of what we were trying to do,” says State Senator Michael Dembrow, who sponsored the bill.

But in case TriMet’s legal interpretation of ORS 243.670 doesn’t hold up, Stevens’ memo also says paid-time union orientation “may violate the Oregon constitution” — because it’s an expenditure of public money for a non-public purpose.

TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch didn’t answer a question from the Labor Press as to whether the legal opinion came from in-house or outside attorneys. But Fetsch said by email that TriMet’s position is that it violates Oregon law for employees to go to the union hall on paid work time for “long orientations that last hours.”

“Members certainly can go to the ATU union hall on their personal time, and the ATU may make orientation presentations to new employees of reasonable duration during TriMet’s orientation on its property,” Fetsch wrote.

In the past, TriMet trainers dropped new hires off at the Local 757 hall for a one- to two- hour paid union orientation at the end of a training shift.

At the March 23 board meeting, Oregon AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Barbara Byrd told TriMet board members that the point of Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act was to encourage a harmonious and cooperative relationship between government and its employees.

“Our federation is concerned by signals that TriMet management has not made a good-faith effort to maintain a productive relationship with ATU. In fact the entire labor community is concerned about poor labor-management relations at TriMet.  TriMet management sets a bad precedent, and their conduct sends a bad message to other public employers.”

After Local 757 president Shirley Block addressed the board, TriMet board chair Bruce Warner said he’d be more than willing to meet with union leaders, and would work with them to set a date for a meeting.

1 Comment on Latest TriMet provocation: ‘Paid union orientations are illegal’

  1. Correction – TriMet trainers do not “drop off” new hires at the Union building. We were expected to find our own way there, either by public transit or in our personal vehicles. And Mary Fetsch is grossly distorting the amount of time new hires spend there. Our orientation lasted 1 hour, tops. Just long enough to take the union pledge and get our copies of our Weingarten Rights and Union membership card, and to be introduced to the office personnel.

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