ATU 757 strategy includes a pile of proposed budget cuts

It’s contract negotiation time for TriMet, and management has been clear about the health benefits most of its employees receive. In a series of speeches and media releases, General Manager Neil McFarlane has repeatedly argued that benefits received by the members of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 are too generous.

TriMet is pushing hard for its employees to pay more for the benefits they receive to help balance the regional transit agency’s budget.

Where does the union stand on the budget? Does it believe cuts are needed and, if so, from where?

New ATU 757 President Bruce Hansen says union members deserve their benefits and believes there are other places to cut the budget, including management positions and compensation.

But Hansen, a bus driver who was elected the local’s president last June, admits the union has not communicated its position clearly to the public, including frequent TriMet riders.

To counter that, Hansen says the union is launching a public relations campaign to refute what he calls TriMet’s repeated “lies and distortions” about his members. And he promises to present alternative budget cuts and strategies to reign in what he calls the agency’s “unsustainable spending.”

Hansen argues TriMet should withdraw from the Columbia River Crossing project and put plans for future transit lines on hold until its current budget problems are solved.

“We’ve dropped the ball in the past, there’s no doubt about that. We need to tell our story so the public understands what’s going on,” Hansen says.

Residents in TriMet’s service district — which includes most Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties — can expect to hear more from the union. ATU 757 members recently approved higher dues to help pay for the public relations campaign. It includes a new website to expose what Hansen calls TriMet’s mismanagement and partnerships with other unions and community groups, including the Service Employee International Union Local 49, the union-backed Jobs With Justice advocacy organization, the Independent Living Resources disability advocacy organization and Bus Riders United, an affiliate of the nonprofit OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon community organizing group.

As part of that effort, ATU 757 recently submitted 14 public records requests to TriMet seeking details on budget and operational matters. Among other things, the union is seeking details on management compensation, expenditures on the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project, operator health issues and a pending move of most management personnel into new downtown Portland offices. Hansen expects many of the documents obtained through the requests to be posted on the website,

TriMet’s budget problems have had a significant impact throughout the tri-county area. In recent years, the agency has reduced service as part of its strategy to eliminate revenue shortfalls. Fareless bus and rail service have been eliminated downtown and in the Lloyd District. Some bus lines have been dropped and others have seen the frequency of the stops decreased. MAX service has also been reduced on some hours. None of the cuts can be restored until TriMet gets its budget under control.

Dueling complaints

Following the budget deliberations has been difficult, however. Negotiations on the contract with ATU 757 that ended in November stretched on for years. A state arbitrator finally ruled in management’s favor late last year, approving a contract that reduced health benefits.

But ATU 757 appealed the ruling to the state Employment Relations Board. And the union has declined to attend negotiating sessions on the next contract, saying TriMet is refusing to open them to the public, something that can be done under Oregon law.

TriMet disagrees with that interpretation of the law and has filed an ERB complaint to force the union to the bargaining table.

Both complaints were heard by an administrative law judge in Salem last week. It could take 45 days or more for the board to issue its rulings.

In the meantime, both TriMet and ATU 757 have asked the Multnomah County Circuit Court to resolve the question on whether the bargaining sessions should be open to the public. A hearing on the issue has not been scheduled.

And breaking news events sometimes overtake budgetary matters. When a TriMet driver struck and killed a number of pedestrians in downtown Portland in April 2010, public outrage put the union on the defensive as it stood by the driver, even though that is a role it traditionally plays. Likewise, the voter revolt in Clackamas County has raised questions about the status of the Milwaukie light-rail project, even though TriMet says it is on track.

Recent media revelations on driver fatigue have caused both TriMet management and ATU 757 to scramble to propose solutions, even though scheduling policies are traditionally addressed in contract negotiations.

Health care instead of wage hikes

Hansen admits McFarlane has convinced many people that ATU 757 members have “Cadillac health coverage” that TriMet can no longer afford. For many years, union members did not pay any portion of the health care premiums and received coverage for life after they retired. Although the contract approved by the arbitrator required members to pay a small portion of their premiums, they were not deducted from their paychecks until recently.

But Hansen argues union members are entitled to the benefit package because their work is stressful and hazardous. Drivers have numerous health issues, including back and kidney problems, while mechanics frequently have to work outside in the rain and snow.

“People don’t understand what our members do in their jobs. That’s part of the story we have to get out,” Hansen says.

In addition, Hansen notes that ATU 757 members have chosen to forgo pay raises to preserve the benefit package. Their hourly wages have not increased in recent years, except for cost of living raises.

“We’ve prioritized the health benefits over pay raises,” Hansen says.

Hansen and other ATU 757 board members believe that if TriMet needs to cut spending, it can find other places to save money. They are convinced the agency has too many managers and that spending on large capital construction projects, like the Milwaukie rail project, is not carefully monitored.

Hansen and the others are not prepared to recommend specific cuts, however. They say the previous leadership had not done a good job collecting detailed agency budget records. As a result, Hansen and the others are unsure how many management positions are filled, how much they are paid or how much TriMet is contributing to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project, which is also supported by federal, state, regional and local governments.

That helps explain the sweeping nature of some of their recent public records requests. For example, on Jan. 3, the union requested the names, salaries and benefits of all union and non-union employees hired since 2005. On Jan. 7, the union requested all documents on expenditures on the Milwaukie rail project.

That same day, the union requested all documents related to the pending move of management staff to Harrison Square in downtown Portland, even though much of the cost is being paid as part of the the Portland-to-Milwaukie work.

According to Hansen, the union plans to present its story and raise issues during contract negotiations — when talks finally begin. That is one reason why ATU 757 wants them open to the public.

“If they’re not open to the public, no one will ever learn what’s said there,” Hansen says. “All that’ll ever be reported is, the contract was approved or it wasn’t approved.”

Hansen and the other board members argue that contract negotiations involving public agencies are open to the public under the state Public Meetings Law. TriMet management disagrees. McFarlane has said TriMet is willing to allow the press to attend and report on the sessions, however. But that is not good enough for ATU 757, which says it will not begin negotiating until the open-talks question is resolved.

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