Tensions are increasing between TriMet and its union as the regional transit agency prepares to unveil its proposed budget for the next fiscal TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT - Amalgamated Transit Union 757 President Bruce Hansen says TriMet is spending too much money on managers.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane is scheduled to present his budget blueprint to the agency’s board of directors on March 13. Although details are not yet available, the proposed budget is not expected to require large spending cuts, like the current one did.

The board approved $12 million in ongoing spending cuts last year, trimming service and even 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 directly 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 full display last Friday, dragging both the Oregon Department of Transportation and a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge into the fray. Results of their involvement remained unknown press time, adding to growing uncertainty about the status of the relationship between the agency and its union.

State collective bargaining law does not allow strikes by union ATU 757. TriMet supports changing that law this session to allow strikes instead of mandatory arbitration, but the union is opposed to it.

TriMet has 2,052 employees who belong to the union and 141 who do not. ODOT workers spent much of March 1 inspecting portions of TriMet’s light rail system after the union publicly 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.

‘Life-threatening’ situation

In his letter and interviews with the press, Hansen said over 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. And Hansen complained sections of the track in the Lloyd District and near the Gateway Transit Center are so deteriorated that TriMet has ordered drivers to slow down 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 and Security Executive Harry Saporta said the trains and tracks are 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,” Alstadt 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 findings by press time.

Contract questions

As the inspection was occurring, attorneys for TriMet and ATU 757 were appearing before Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Roberts. TriMet has asked the court to require the union to attend collective bargaining sessions connected to its next contract. Union officials are refusing, saying TriMet will not open them to the public, as required by 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 meanings of words and phrases 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 countered that it is not.

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

Roberts gave both sides until March 8 to submit additional briefs. She did not set a deadline for her ruling.

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