Talks turn sour even before they begin as sides gird for fight

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - TriMet and its largest labor union are wrestling with the start of new contract talks in what could be a difficult fight for a new labor agreement to replace a contract that expired Nov. 30.Negotiations on the next contract between TriMet and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 are off to a rocky start. They could be even more contentious than the previous talks, which were characterized by acrimony and union protests.

Charges and counter-charges are already flying. And ATU 757 is raising its members’ dues in January to fund what it calls a “war chest” for the negotiations.

The ATU 757 contract expired on Nov. 30 and the two parties cannot agree which contract that was, who can attend the negotiating sessions or whether negotiations have even begun.

Talks about the previous three-year contract dragged on for more than 30 months and were finally settled in July by a state arbitrator who ruled in favor of TriMet’s proposal, which focused on expensive health care benefits for union members. The contract was retroactive to Dec. 1, 2009.

But the union representing most of TriMet’s employees filed an unfair labor practice charge against a majority of that contract with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

Essentially, ATU 757 is arguing that the previous contract, which it supported, is still in effect. The union has also directed its members not to comply with the contract authorized by the arbitrator, which allows TriMet to recoup $6.8 million in health insurance premium payments made by payment in excess of the new contract’s requirements.

In response, TriMet filed its own unfair labor practice charge against ATU 757 with ERB. It seeks enforcement of the arbitrator-approved contract and wants ATU 757 to be held liable for the $6.8 million owned TriMet.

The ERB will hear arguments about the two competing charges in early January.

In the weeks leading to the end of the contract period, TriMet and ATU 757 agreed to start negotiating the next one on Nov. 30. But then on Nov. 19, ATU 757 notified TriMet that it believes the public is entitled to attend the negotiation sessions under the state’s public meetings law. TriMet rejected the interpretation of the law, but proposed the two sides discuss opening them to the press at the Nov. 30 session.

Two days before the session, ATU 757 proposed submitting the question to ERB. The next day, TriMet responded by noting that the law only allows state courts to decide which gatherings are covered by it. An hour before the 9 a.m. session was scheduled to begin, ATU 757 agreed to submit the question to Multnomah Circuit Court.

Randy Stedman, TriMet’s executive director for labor relations and human resources, showed up at the State Office Building in the Lloyd District where the session was scheduled. He brought TriMet’s first contract proposal with him. When no union representatives showed up, Stedman had the proposals hand-delivered to the ATU 757 offices.

The starting date is important because state collective bargaining laws say negotiations must be completed within 150 days after both parties first meet and exchange proposals.

Stedman says TriMet believes the clock started running on Nov. 30 because TriMet showed up at the meeting prepared to negotiate and made sure ATU 757 received its proposals. The union insists it canceled the session on Nov. 19 when TriMet refused to allow the public to attend.

The paperwork will be submitted to the court this Friday. Until the next contract is approved, ATU members will not receive cost-of-living pay increases scheduled for every Dec. 1 and July 1, and will start paying higher health care premiums on Jan. 1, 2013.

Yet another arbitration

The most recent contract negotiations were filled with political brinksmanship. TriMet was facing a deficit of between $12 million and $17 million going into the current fiscal year and wanted to reduce employee health care costs to help balance the budget. TriMet’s financial situation is not as dire, in large part because of fare increases and service cuts imposed in September. The agency does not project another deficit until 2016.

But TriMet does predict ever-larger budget gaps after 2017 unless its union health care costs are reduced even more. Among other things, proposals delivered to ATU 757 call for its members to pay more of the costs in coming years.

Throughout the most recent negotiations, TriMet managers argued that its approved health care coverage plans were unrealistically generous. Union members did not have to pay any of their health care premiums, and both they and their spouses could collect benefits until they died.

The union responded that the benefits were fair because the jobs — especially those of bus drivers — are stressful and have many health risks. The union says management costs should be reduced instead.

When negotiations started in 2009, TriMet proposed a new contract that required ATU 757 members to pay a portion of their health care premiums and more for doctor visits and prescriptions. ATU 757 proposed extending the previous contract. Neither side budged significantly past the 150-day deadline. The matter finally went to binding arbitration, the route approved by the 2007 Oregon Legislature when lawmakers voted to included transit agency employees in the same labor category as police and firefighters.

Under the state’s collective bargaining laws, these employees cannot strike to resolve labor disputes. And the arbitrator must make a winner-take-all decision, choosing one of the competing proposals in the end.

On July 12, 2012, arbitrator David Gaba chose TriMet’s best and final offer. In the ruling, Gaba said his decision was largely based on TriMet’s perilous financial situation.

“There is no dispute that TriMet is dealing with financial hardship and the parties do not differ greatly on the project costs to TriMet under their respective proposals,” Gaba wrote.

But Gaba also wrote that the Legislature made a mistake when it extended winner-take-all arbitration to TriMet and its union. According to Gaba, the law is unclear about whether TriMet should be compared to other transit districts in Oregon or similar-sized transit districts outside the state. Because of this, Gaba says, it was difficult to determine “objective information” concerning comparable wages and operating conditions during the arbitration proceedings.

“Only through looking at objective information regarding comparable jurisdictions can the parties avoid the potential of yet another interest arbitration,” Gaba warned.

Dues increase

ATU 757 was clearly unhappy with Gaba’s ruling and challenged every provision in the new contract except the continued payment of cost-of-living increases. The membership of the union then shook up its leadership at the officers’ election, replacing longtime President Jonathan Hunt with Bruce Hansen, a bus driver. Hunt remained vice president, however.

Last month, ATU 757 revealed plans to fight TriMet even harder on the next contract. Union leadership sent a letter to all members on Nov. 6 notifying them of a 12-month dues increase to fund new strategies. The increase will be $25 for full-time members and $15 for part-time members, starting on Jan. 1, 2013.

According to the letter, the dues increases will fund “a public campaign to educate the public about the truth of TriMet management,” the hiring of legal and other expert help, and increased communications with the members during the negotiations.

The letter also said the union was partnering with four other organizations that contacted it after the last negotiation sessions to offer help.

“This will be a community-wide effort,” union officials wrote in the letter, which did not identify the organizations.

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