Tensions are increasing between TriMet and its union as the regional transit agency prepares to unveil its proposed budget for next fiscal year.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane will present his proposed budget to the agency board on March 13. Although details are not available, the proposed budget is not expected to require large spending cuts, like the current budget. The board approved $12 million in spending cuts last year, trimming service and eliminating some bus lines to accomplish them. Similar reductions are not expected in the TriMet budget that takes effect on July 1.

Despite that, the relationship between TriMet and Amalgamated Transit Union 757 continues to deteriorate. Much of it is related to TriMet’s continued insistence that union employees pay a portion of their health care costs to help balance the books.

The breakdown was on display last Friday, dragging both the Oregon Department of Transportation and a Multnomah County circuit judge into the fray. ODOT workers spent much of March 1 inspecting portions of TriMet’s light-rail system after union officials declared it unsafe. In a Feb. 22 press release, ATU 757 President Bruce Hansen laid out a series of accusations against both the MAX trains and sections of the tracks.

In his letter and media interviews, Hansen said more than 100 doors were in danger of falling off older MAX trains because they are not being properly maintained. He also said drivers cannot see well enough out of the new trains to drive safely. Hansen complained that sections of MAX track in the Lloyd District and near the Gateway Transit Center were so deteriorated that TriMet had ordered drivers to go slow when approaching them.

“The situation is life-threatening, and management is not listening to the workers’ concerns,” Hansen said. “What upsets our folks is that TriMet has plenty of money to hire excess numbers of highly paid managers, but no money to keep up with basic maintenance of the system. Management is willing to bleed the operations budget dry in order to expand a light-rail system that its workers know is falling apart.”

TriMet officials disputed Hansen’s accusations, saying the system is safe. Safety & Security Executive Harry Saporta said both MAX trains and tracks were receiving required maintenance and scheduled repairs. And spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt dismissed the charges as part of a dues-supported public relations campaign by the union to maintain its health benefits.

“The ATU leadership has created false claims about the safety of the MAX system,” Altstadt said. “These claims are absolutely not true. This is all part of the ATU leadership’s $600,000 public relations smear campaign to divert attention away from the need to bring union health care costs under control and reform the contract.”

ODOT had not released its safety inspection findings.

As ODOT staff were inspecting tracks, attorneys for TriMet and ATU 757 were in Multnomah County Circuit Court in front of Judge Leslie Roberts. TriMet has asked the court to require the union to attend collective bargaining sessions on its next contract. Union officials refuse to attend the sessions, saying TriMet will not open them to the public, something that can be done under state law. TriMet denies that state law requires collective bargaining sessions to be open to the public.

During a nearly two-hour hearing, Roberts and the attorneys parsed the meaning of words and phases in two sections of Oregon law. One covers public collective bargaining, which says labor negotiations must be conducted in open meetings. The other covers open meetings, which only requires them of the public governing bodies.

Union attorney Gregory Hartman argued that TriMet’s negotiating team is a governing body, while TriMet attorney Erik Van Hagen disagreed.

No other government in Oregon opens its labor negotiations to the public, including the city of Portland and the Portland Public Schools.

Roberts gave both sides until Friday, March 8, to submit additional arguments in writing. She did not set a deadline for her ruling.

Contract Publishing

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