Tag Archives: budget

October Performance

Lots of interesting tidbits in TriMet’s October Performance Dashboard.

Ridership Changes

Ridership statistics

MAX ridership has gone down, no big surprise since there’s no more free rail zone so people won’t necessarily wait for a train to get from one point downtown to another if a bus shows up first (or if they just walk…) What is surprising is that despite service cuts in September, there are more people riding buses than this time last year when there was comparatively more service. WES is doing marginally better, but at $11.69 cost per boarding ride and an essentially flat graph, it’s nothing spectacular.

On Time Performance

I’d modified my last post with this graph (at the time I published that post, only performance through September was available, but October’s data made it even more interesting). In an Oregonian article, TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt attributes the cause to external issues (e.g. cars crashing in the ROW, and as I said on Twitter, it’s a nice change of pace that the most recent drunk dumbass to go off-road didn’t do it over MAX ROW) and the inexperience of new operators. That new operator inexperience is not even just an issue of familiarity with the alignment – new operators are more likely to have rule violations that delay their trains (e.g. tripping a signal), and are generally not as capable as most seasoned operators are at quickly and accurately describing to Control any sort of mechanical issue they might have which leads to a delay in fixing it. Yes, these are problems that time and experience will help (until they hit the complacency mark around 6-12 months when rule violations often spike again, but that’s another issue…)

So while it’s true that inexperienced operators are part of the reason for the downward slope in MAX on time performance, that doesn’t really get at the root cause of WHY there are so many new operators out right now. TriMet went for about a year and a half without having new rail operator classes, and lately they’ve been run almost back to back due to operator shortage. It’s the same at bus – a long hiring freeze on bus drivers and now oh dear, there aren’t enough operators. So a hiring rush ends up where there’s a lot of inexperience on the roads and rails at once. This could have been avoided if more focus was given to actual operation and new people had been added at a steady, constant rate instead of in rapid succession after a long period of none at all… and I think that’s one of the contributing factors to this:

Collisions

Bus collisions per 100,000 miles

Ok, if we’re serious about this whole “Safety is  a value, not just a priority” and that’s not just a catch phrase to try and look good, then this warrants a long and hard look. Bus collision rates have been consistently higher (with 2 exceptions) than last year for the past year. After the Sandi Day incident, TriMet head of training Allen Morgan developed an annual bus operator recertification training program, which theoretically would reduce the number of bus accidents. Well it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. Or maybe it does work but it’s the initial operating training that isn’t adequately preparing new drivers. Or maybe there’s just too many new drivers at once due to the hiring freeze. Whichever it is, this trend of increasing collisions needs an immediate response, and not just a safety committee that’s all talk and no action.

And so it doesn’t look like I’m just picking on bus and leaving rail alone: Even though it’s not one of the graphs presented in the dashboard, let’s take a look at rail rule violations as well. If there’s a similar trend, then we need to stop seeing how many times we can fit the word “safety” into a speech and actually do something to improve safety.

Budget

Tax Revenue

I’m no financial analyst, so maybe I’m looking at this all wrong, and if I am, feel free to correct me. But after that whole panic attack about TriMet having somewhere between $12-17 million budget shortfall… it looks like the actual revenue is almost $16 million over the budget for FY 2012, and about $3.5 million over for FY 2013. Even taking into consideration the passenger revenue chart which shows the budget being slightly higher than the actual (about $2.3 million for FY 2012 and $1.1 million for FY 2013), it doesn’t look like we were anywhere near being short – if so I would’ve guessed that the actual would be under the budget, or perhaps taking the recent cuts into consideration, about even. Instead it appears to be well over. What’s the story?

Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.

I guess they didn’t read “Empower, Trust, Stand Behind

The mud slinging from the top continued last Friday in full force at the City Club of Portland. General Manager Neil McFarlane spoke along with David Knowles of CH2M Hill (a construction/engineering firm) on “Moving Forward While Cutting Back”. It’s interesting that TriMet is partnering with CH2M Hill on this, as it highlights how the focus at TriMet these days seems to be geared more toward development and less toward transit. Not to downplay the importance of development (yes I realize there wouldn’t be any rail at all without it), but I don’t like development at the expense of existing service. The backgrounds of the board members (Bruce Warner – Director of Portland Development Commission; Tiffany Sweitzer – President of Hoyt Street Properties, recent appointee Craig Prosser is a longtime advocate of MAX to Tigard, etc) gives support to the idea that TriMet is currently more interested in development than maintenance of existing service and operations, and I don’t think I can agree with that stance if that is the direction we’re heading.

Neil spoke first, channeling Charles Dickens to describe “A Tale of Two TriMets”, praising high levels of ridership, fare enforcement and safety, and then moving on to the darker side… He stated that the union contract is “strangling” TriMet, again claiming that TriMet union employees have the most generous healthcare benefits in the country. I have yet to see *anyone* do a total compensation comparison – wages AND benefits – of TriMet union employees with similar transit agencies. Simply looking at benefits is not adequate as TriMet wages are lower than many other agencies. The highest paid drivers in this country are MBTA with an hourly rate of $30.18, Seattle Metro drivers make $28.47/hr, San Francisco drivers make $29.52, Chicago drivers make $28.64, Santa Clara pays drivers $28.86 – all of which are above TriMet’s pay. I have no idea if we’re comparable because I don’t know what their benefits are. No one is doing that comparison, but TriMet and the local media just keep trotting out that benefits for union employees are averaging “a $22,000/year Blue Cross bill.”

The problem with that figure is that not all union employees even HAVE Blue Cross (many use Kaiser, which is about 2/3rds the cost of Blue Cross). And even of those that have Blue Cross, the annual charges are substantially less if they’re not getting any sort of family or spouse coverage, which is the only thing close to that $22k amount.

As for what percentage of union employees have Kaiser, what percentage have Blue Cross, how many are getting single coverage, how many are getting spouse, how many are getting family (and then for those latter categories, how many of those are minirunners who have always had to pay to cover spouse and family)? Who knows? The situation is far too nuanced to be able to say that each union employee is costing $22k/year in benefits.

I guess maybe throwing out big numbers makes a better sound byte than actually detailing what the union benefits are.

While we’re on the subject of sound bytes:

Excerpt from Neil’s City Club speech.

Well lucky for you Neil, operators tend to die young, so those “rich health care benefits” often aren’t paid out all that long.

For those of you wondering what was going on with all the emergency vehicles at Rose Quarter two Sundays ago? That was the medical response for bus operator Dale Arlt, who passed away while on layover there. He was 51.

I think it’s in extremely poor taste for Neil to make a comment like “until death do us part” about the union given that an operator died on the job not even a week before.

I DO NOT KEEP BRINGING UP OPERATOR DEATHS FOR GORE SHOCK VALUE. I keep bringing this up because this is really happening, and no one outside of operations circles seems to care.  I am sick of seeing people saying things like how the union “needs some skin in the game otherwise they’ll be seeing doctors for frivolous reasons.” (as if eight dead coworkers over the last few years isn’t enough skin in the game…)

Not one local media outlet has run any sort of coverage on the chronic negative health effects that frontline transit workers in an effort to explain why the benefits are the way they are. However, you can infer some of the acute negative health effects from recent headlines: Man threatens MAX operator with knife, woman spits on bus driver (not a repeat from last time), man tries to choke bus driver, etc.

The simple truth is that frontline transit workers are in an extremely unhealthy job. There are stories out there that describe it. There’s research on how transit operators are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, digestive diseases, cancer, and other illnesses given the nature and the scheduling of the work. And yes, bus operators either know this before they start or figure it out in a hurry (before anyone comes sailing in here with “No one is holding a gun to your head making you drive a bus/train for TriMet!”) and so the union has negotiated health care benefits while sacrificing raises because of these risks.

But no, instead all that you’re going to see out there about “TriMet” and “health benefits” and “union” are inflated figures and commentary about how the union is being out-of-line. You won’t see, for example, what sort of non-union retiree benefits are being paid out. I’ll share what I’ve been able to find.

TriMet pays $4.5 million annually to the retirement trust of non-union employees hired before 2003 (source)

Not sure what the setup is for non-union employees hired after 2003, but if union retiree benefits are so “rich” and therefore on the table for cuts, shouldn’t these sort of non-union ones be as well? $4.5 million a year could restore a lot of service…

How the executives fare (pun mildly intended)

Al M did a public records request to see what the pension payments are for former GM Fred Hansen, former general counsel Brian Playfair, and former executive director of communications Carolyn Young. After 10 years of service, Hansen is pulling in a comfortable $15k/month from TriMet and Brian Playfair (unsure of how long he was at TriMet) is getting $11k. No bus driver gets a pension like those, I assure you, no matter how long he or she worked at TriMet. And these are the only executives that Al requested, so other retired executive directors and former GMs’ pensions are unknown. But it’s a pretty good starting place to guess what Neil McFarlane can expect to receive after retirement from 20+ years of service.

Have you seen that part in the news? Are these also being listed as the “rich benefits” that are a threat to TriMet’s future sustainability? Nope – all you’ll hear about the financial issues dragging TriMet down are union health and retiree costs, with upper management blaming the union for the delay in the contract being negotiated.

Now Hiring: Executive Director of Blame Diversion

Let me tell you something about doing something wrong as a rail operator. If/when you screw up (getting an ATS trip from speeding – even marginally – or going through a red signal, opening your doors on the wrong side, etc), you take responsibility for your actions. You call it in and report what you did. A supervisor will most likely do a fit check on you and you’ll have to write a report of the incident; depending on the severity of what you did, the data from your train might be downloaded, and you could face discipline, especially if you’ve got multiple rule violations within the last year or so. But you take responsibility for what you did because the rules are there for a reason and we all play by them.

Now compare that to board member Tiffany “it’s a goofy code” Sweitzer, who knew that her company Hoyt Street Properties wasn’t allowed to pave a parking lot in the Pearl District, but did so anyway and charged people $100/space for three years. This illegal parking lot generated about $100,000 for her company. She does not dispute or deny this, instead justifying it when questioned by Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen by saying that she was providing a service to the community. Does this have any bearing on her ability to serve on the TriMet Board? I don’t know, but that sort of flaunting of established laws isn’t particularly indicative of a willingness to play by the rules or to take responsibility when you do something wrong.

Neither is the ongoing negotiation. The Employment Relations Board has ruled against TriMet TWICE now for not following collective bargaining law – once for making changes to the proposed contract away from the bargaining table and once for suspending cost of living adjustments. This is not the union’s fault, and this is not the union executing any sort of “legal maneuvering” or having a “stranglehold” on TriMet. TriMet does not seem to be interested in playing by these rules and following terms of a contract which is why the ERB has ruled in favor of the union twice. Yet TriMet has all but outright threatened to sue Clackamas County for the $25 million they’re supposed to contribute to the PMLR project if voters pass a measure preventing the county from spending the money, because as Neil said in his KGW interview that they were bound by an agreement that must be upheld.

Why is only one side of the table playing by the rules here?

Why do only some agreements need to be honored?

Then David Knowles Said Something

You know, I almost don’t even want to dignify Knowles’s speech with a response, but I feel somewhat compelled to, at least the parts of it that aren’t outright pandering to Capital Projects.

Yeah, a funny thing about this: Portland Transport had a great discussion on the topic of Honored Citizen fares already, and there was an interesting link in there that Knowles should have perhaps familiarized himself with. Assuming TriMet wants to continue to benefit from receiving FTA grants (and we’ll assume that TriMet does in fact want to continue receiving FTA grants), it’s actually a requirement that seniors and people with disabilities get a fare discount of 50% during off-peak hours. Since we don’t have any difference between peak fares and off-peak fares, our HC discount applies at all hours. Sure I suppose we can drop that, but something tells me that’s not worth losing FTA grant eligibility.

How much do you care about our public services, David? Funny, I thought you just said TriMet is not a social service agency. How invested are you? Which bus routes do you regularly commute on? Or is public transportation is just something that other people are supposed to take? And hang on a second, what’s this “we”, kemosabe? Since when is CH2M Hill pulling the strings at TriMet?

Edited March 1: Thanks to Jason McHuff for pointing this out – the City Club Forums are held in the Governor Hotel, not the actual City Club of Portland. But the rest of the point is still applicable – Look at all the bus/rail stops surrounding that location. How many attendees do you suppose actually took our wonderful transit system there? I wonder if Knowles did, given how much he cares.

And then regarding the binding arbitration law that prevents a strike/lockout for transit workers:

Wow, really? That’s our new barometer for judging the importance of transit service, that “nobody is going to die” if we don’t have it?  Well sheesh, nobody is going to die if the new light rail bridge isn’t built. N0body is going to die if PMLR is put on hold until TriMet is in the black. Nobody is going to die if TriMet stops subsidizing the Portland Streetcar. Nobody is going to die if we start charging WES fares closer to its operating expenses…

(also, you do know that the 15 runs by a hospital and a medical center, right? Just checking.)

I keep rereading this section, but sadly that does not help it make any more sense. See, the status quo would be to retain the union contract as it stands (that’s sort of what “maintaining the status quo” means). The union’s status quo means that you have the same benefits and retirement eligibility regardless of when you were hired. It was actually TriMet’s final offer (i.e. the one that the ERB ruled to be out of bounds) that would have made that small group of union employees – those who retire before April 2012 would have the same benefits as active employees, but those who retire after would have only three years maximum of retiree benefits; there would be different benefit eligibility for employees hired before April 2012 and after, etc.  Yeah, it’s not the union who is creating separate classes of employees; it’s TriMet doing that.

Divide and Conquer

I don’t like the how this whole ordeal is pitting riders against the union by TriMet painting their own mismanagement of money and inability to follow collective bargaining laws to be the union’s fault and the reason why service will be cut and fares increased. If service is cut or fares increased, that’s voted in by the TriMet Board – NOT by the union. A few posts ago, I mentioned how the people who vote to approve service cuts & fare increases are pretty much completely shielded from the results of those decisions, and that’s still true. It’s the bus drivers getting assaulted over fare disputes, not upper management or the board.

At the December board meeting, retired driver Alan Eisenberg gave this brilliant commentary - the linked point in the video is when Eisenberg asks the room at large to raise their hand if they took public transportation to the board meeting. Not one of the board members moves (oh, how I would have loved to seen the results of the same question being asked at the City Club of Portland meeting). See, in my opinion, that sheds a lot of light on what’s wrong with the structure here. The board, who ultimately votes to put both fare increases and service cuts into effect, does not use the service the way the riders in the district do. Need to save $17 million? Well then, cut ALL the runs and raise fares by a dollar! Who cares? What difference does it make to the board? They won’t be the ones standing out in the rain for 45 minutes at night waiting for a connecting bus while their transfer expires.

Only one of the 7 board members is required to actually ride TriMet (source)

In fact, as shown in the requirements to serve on the TriMet board, only one of them has to actually be a regular user (my understanding is that Consuelo Saragoza is currently the one member who fills that requirement). No definition of “regular user” is provided, so I don’t know how often she rides or which routes. But here’s how “those who depend on [transit] the most” on the budget choice tool was defined:

Depends on transit the most = rides at least once per year?

Even if her ridership is more than once a year, I personally think it would be beneficial if all of the board members were regular riders of the routes in the districts they represent.

Shouldn’t they all have, as they say, “some skin in the game?”

To be fair, former board member Lehrbach consistently showed resistance to raising fares and cutting service, but the rest do not, and the fact that they drive to the board meetings (conveniently located in the Portland Building right on the transit mall downtown) speaks volumes as to why. More’s the pity that Lehrbach was not reappointed to the board as he seemed to primarily be the member to advocate for the union and for the riders as well.

And despite claims that TriMet is “absolutely transparent” (see page 3), the budget committee advising Neil McFarlane did so through closed meetings, the proceedings of which were not available for public attendance and the records of which were not available for public record. The committee itself seemed to be made up of local business executive directors & other leadership levels. Yes, I am about to make an assumption here, but typically people at those levels in organizations are not people who will be riding a bus on a weekend or at night to get to work, so I’m concerned that this committee may not see the value in preserving service for those who do need it. Why no riders (or operators) on this committee? Why so secret? How much of a vested interest did this committee have in preserving service with affordable fares?

Where am I going with this?

You know, I don’t even know. I started MAX FAQs nearly 2 years ago as my own way of doing rail outreach, talking about signals and switches and how fast the trains go and all the little details that make the system work. It’s been a neat way to interact with the people out there who think that this topic is interesting, because it’s something that most people won’t ever see unless they become rail operators too.

And honestly, I’d rather be blogging about the technical parts of the system like I usually do. But I can’t sit by and just silently watch as the union and frontline workers who deliver a valuable public service are repeatedly attacked and blamed for TriMet’s mismanagement of finances and inability (unwillingness?) to comply with collective bargaining laws. Losing several million on diesel hedge funds? Going $34 million over budget for WES, which continues to lose money by taking in far less per rider than it costs? Heck, even TriMet’s government affairs staff not noticing that TriMet no longer gets any money from fare citations – NONE of these financial losses are the union’s fault or responsibility.

There might be a stranglehold on TriMet’s financial situation all right, but it sure isn’t ATU doing it.

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” Charles Dickens

Another perspective

Editor’s note: Guest post time. This was written by a friend who is also a union employee at TriMet in response to the “Empower, Trust, Stand Behind” post. I liked it and thought it merited its own post instead of getting buried in the comments. I welcome other people’s perspectives on this issue as well. As always, the opinions presented are those of the author, and while I personally am in agreement and think some excellent points are made here, they should not be assumed to reflect the opinions of all TriMet employees or ATU 757.

NEARLY ALL of the stories in the media about TriMet are negative and attacks on union employees. I find it appalling that they are not being honest and presenting both sides of the story.

TRIMET FRONT LINE EMPLOYEES DO NOT form TriMet’s budget, nor do we have the power to change it….

Employees used to be able to run an errand before or after work in their uniforms and no one would cast a second glance. NOW you need to have a spare shirt or jacket on hand in the trunk of your car so you can cover up any identifying markings that you work at Trimet because of the glances, stares and threats (yes, threats) you get. I have been spit at, cursed at, yelled at and pushed..and these are when I am OFF DUTY! (Oh, and I have a compliment-complaint ratio of roughly 30 good and 1-2 or fewer bad every year since I’ve started)

FOLKS WHO READ THIS BLOG PLEASE TAKE NOTE: I am well aware TriMet reads it too. I know those that normally follow this blog are better informed, and more objective than most..I AM NOT here to beat up TriMet..I still very much like where I work. I don’t like all the extra scrutiny any more than TriMet (TM) does.

1) We (union employees) are not “un-budgeable”. When the company started to charge union employees for the additional cost of their health benefits over a year ago (so in essence TM’s cost hasn’t changed) many of us were of the opinion that we would be happy to pay a portion of our benefits. I am paying a portion now and have been for 13 months (yes, there are those out there that DO pay more, but that’s another argument). I have no issue paying for part of my benefits as long as I know our collective dollars going back to TM are being spent WISELY. TriMet has a long track record of scary (and FUEL-ish) spending. (A QUARTER MILLION DOLLARS for a big deer art statue? Really?) Another $120k MANAGER? Has anyone really researched the organizational chart? There must be one manager/director/leadership position for every 5-10 non manager employee (I don’t know the exact figure but TM is top heavy)

2) WE DIDN’T BREAK THE LAW in our negotiations. TRIMET DID. AND, we haven’t slung anywhere near the mud TM has slung at us. Negotiating in good faith? The TM talk internally has been butterflies and rainbows…but that’s not the message the media and the public get.

3) ALL THOSE FOLKS OUT THERE who would work for half of what I make..Ok, I understand that many are out of work..and many would just about take ANY steady paying job. I won’t lie-Benefits were one of the major driving forces for my choice to apply at TM. They do have a nice package. Union members ARE NOT the cause of rising health care costs..insurance companies are. TM has the option to seek out different healthcare other than the ones chosen. Those chiropractor visits? I need every one of them. Free cosmetic surgery? Ah, nope. Urban legend. I’m told I have one of the best benefit packages in the nation. Ok. Let’s get TM and the Onion to do a fact-based, unbiased check of every comparable agency in work, size and equipment (cause ya gotta know that the beat up equipment we use day in-day out mentioned in the main article above, the health and deaths gotta be comparable, etc.) MAXFAQs has shown in their posts these stats.

Nope, I’m not at all saying I have it rough, per se. “You knew what you were getting into when you took the job”. Yup. I did. I knew that the wage & benefits package would help to keep my personal health in balance for the most part and I signed on for that. TM at my time of hire was a respected company to work for. I took a significant paycut when I started, but knew over about 4 years I would get that back. I knew that not everyone I dealt with in my job were going to be Wally & Beaver Cleaver (look it up you young whippersnappers! lol) but I felt TM would back me up AND that the MAJORITY of my encounters with the public would be positive.

Folks need to put things in perspective. TM needs to put things in perspective. THE UNION needs to put things in perspective. We all need to get along better. Hell, we can’t get congress to get along. Yes, YOU, JOHN Q PUBLIC would like to have my job right now. ME TOO. I STILL LOVE MY JOB. But let’s put things into perspective..put the shoe on the other foot so to speak.

- Many would likely work for $9.00 an hour right now. If I were unemployed, I WOULD work for $9.00 (temporarily) an hour right now. But that’s NOT the deal we signed on for. That’s NOT what the company told me I would be making when I hired on.

It often irks me when I stop to think about all of the pro athletes that make more money than I do in a game or two (A GAME) than I make all year and you have to do a Home Improvement loan to be able to afford tickets to go to the game and eat while you’re there, but nearly NO ONE complains about their wages. But then–Really..if you felt you could be paid 28K (roughly) for a couple of hours “work” playing a game each day, and then going to workouts, practices and public appearances..you would think that you were worth it. You wouldn’t feel like you were being paid too much for what you do, would you. All of the injuries, the pounding your body takes, etc, etc. You plan to stay on “the job” and could play hard for a few years and then WHAP! an injury sidelines you.

- I make the same offer I’ve made in the past to anyone who’s willing to take me up on it. Get on your bus in the front seat facing the operator first thing in the morning, before rush hour or say a #4/72/8 on a Friday night. Ride that bus, in the same seat, for 8-10 hours. Nope. NO getting up from the seat until the end of the line to go potty, and then only if you have arrived on time, cause now all those passengers that are waiting for you to arrive are pissed cause you’re late..again. Yup. Even the ones who are planning to jump on the last possible bus to get them to their destination 2 minutes early. But, they’ll be ok. This bus NEVER runs late, right? Traffic ALWAYS COOPERATES. Buses & cars NEVER break down.. Ok, better go potty anyway cause it’ll be 2 hours or so before you get the chance to go. Be sure on your ride to take note any complaints passengers may have about fares, old transfers, no a/c-heat, etc.

Take note of the traffic. When you leave the end of the line, take note of the departure time and track your timeliness thru the route, checking from time to time to see if your operator is trying to stay on time but just can’t seem to or something else. Observe the passengers who get on in a “not in any hurry..take my time sort of way”. Observe closely how much time that eats up.

Don’t fret-DON’T get out of your seat or eat yet…you can go potty at the end of the line..your “break” is actually called RECOVERY TIME on your schedule-SOME routes have built in time (5 min on some, 30 min on others) so that if you’re late arriving at the end of the line, in some cases this recovery time will allow you to make up some of your lateness, but then your break (to potty, eat, drink, relax and recover comes out of the time that is left over, IF ANY). But again-Don’t fret. You can take your scheduled-in break 2 hours after your day starts or an hour before you get off, cause that’s what your schedule says. Not before this time though.

So, after 8-10 hours of being beaten (physically because of the ride and mentally because of the “complaints”) –how ya doin? Nope, you’re not done yet. Now repeat the same scenario you just did for four more days..in a row. Now you’ve put those “shoes” to productive work.

Our job IS NOT rocket science..we know that. Our job ISN’T curing cancer..know that too. I’ve already said I was aware (albeit mostly) of what I was getting into when I was hired.

I don’t want a penny more.
I don’t want even better benefits (ok, maybe more chiro & add some massage in, but).
I DO need the benefits I have now.
I don’t go to work everyday trying to figure out ways to screw the public, I SWEAR.
We are FAR from perfect and have things we need to work on-we know that too. But in fairness, we ARE better than most transit agencies (I moved a lot in my earlier years). I know this because of passenger comments and I have driven for three different agencies throughout the country and ridden several more.

I want only what was promised to me and I AM willing to compromise to some degree..as long as the money I am saving TM is fixing the ship, not patching for the benefit of hiring four new captains or a sleeker boat from a pet project gone bad.

In truth, TM union employees are not the only ones to have “had it good” in the past. Portlanders have as well. They have had a premium service provided (yes, we have bad apples among us, but there isn’t anyone who can say they haven’t..not even the church anymore). For the most part, our sidewalks don’t fold up, and service thru the metro area doesn’t cease to exist after 6pm every night. Until the last possible minute, we had our downtown service free of charge to riders.

I just want BOTH sides to be told, and to negotiate in good faith with my employer..NOT to be dragged in the mud by my employer.
(This post is not necessarily the opinion of TriMet or its management and is solely my opinion.)

“Empower. Trust. Stand Behind.”

It was years ago when I first heard those words from a manager at rail, who had said that was his guiding principle for managing operators. For whatever reason, the idea resonated with me, and it has stuck with me. And when I look at a lot of what’s been going on at TriMet, I find that phrase echoing in my head.

Empower, trust, stand behind.

It implies that managers will give the front line workers what they need to do their jobs, and do them well, and believe that those workers are capable of doing those jobs. For the front line workers, it implies that the people above you will have your back. It implies respect, which has to be mutual or it isn’t there at all.

It implies things that I wish I saw more of at TriMet.

This has been kicking around in my head since the budget tool was released. In part, as previously mentioned, because I thought that was a poor representation of possible options to save money. But more than that, all the sniping little comments in there taking shots at the union made me feel very uncomfortable. Personally I think that is grossly unprofessional for an official TriMet release. It’s not empowering, it doesn’t show trust, and it certainly isn’t standing behind union workers.

Accusing the union of refusing to be reasonable: present
Acknowledging that TriMet broke the law: curiously absent

Background

Most of TriMet’s employees are in the union – about 87% are union and 13% are non-union. I’m not sure of the exact percentage of how many of those 13% are management – not all non-union workers are in managerial positions despite Neil’s tweet saying 13% is management. TriMet & ATU 757′s contract expired in 2009, so union workers have been working without a contract for a little over two years. However, there are still laws that govern collective bargaining even when a contract has expired, and the union filed two Unfair Labor Practices against TriMet arguing that TriMet was in violation of those laws – one ULP because TriMet made changes to their final offer away from the bargaining table, and one for suspending cost of living payments & refusing to cover health insurance premiums in violation of ORS 243.672(1)(a).

As to the first of those ULPs, the Employee Review Board agreed that TriMet was in violation of ORS 243.672 (1)(e) – in other words, TriMet did not bargain in good faith by making those changes to the final offer – and the ERB ordered TriMet to cease violation of the law. TriMet appealed to the ERB’s ruling and lost. The outcome of the second ULP is still pending. ATU can’t/won’t strike because it is not allowed under law. Instead the contract will be settled via binding arbitration, and arbitration can’t move forward until the ULPs are resolved.

In the meantime, official TriMet releases (first the Budget Choice tool, and now a separate union page linked right from the main page of trimet.org) have been painting the union as the main threat to the transportation service that the poor, vulnerable non-union workers want oh-so-desperately to provide. I feel like there’s a “big bad wolf” style political cartoon lurking here. Unfortunately I have all the artistic talent of a dead hamster, so I won’t be the one to draw it.

But here’s the sort of thing I mean:

Cuts to the non-union staff/salaries will threaten service? Really now? See, last I checked, the operators of the buses and trains (i.e. the people that are directly providing the service) are union. The mechanics keeping everything in working order are union. The supervisors and fare inspectors enforcing the rules out in the field are union. The dispatchers and controllers keeping everything running are union. The cleaners removing other people’s trash from the vehicles? Yep, union. (I know I’m missing some categories of union workers but I think you get my point) Funny, it kind of looks like making cuts to the union workers would have a bigger impact on service than non-union cuts, since those job categories are much more closely tied to providing service than most non-union positions. For example, can you explain how the recently posted Public Arts Coordinator (non-union, $56k/year not counting benefits) directly contributes to service, or specifically how service would suffer if we chose not to fill that role at this time in order to save money?

“Out-of-line”?  Now don’t you think that language is a bit inflammatory? Tell you what… I think paying a General Manager $215,000/year is out of line in a time when everything is on the table to be cut, it’s the worst recession since the Great Depression, etc. And so, I humbly offer that I will do the General Manager’s job for the bargain low price of $99,999/year (plus shipping and handling). Look how much we’d save! Tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but there is something very race-to-the-bottomish about this whole thing, working up the public (based on comments I’ve seen in the Oregonian and elsewhere) to vehemently argue that there’s no reason someone without a college degree should be able to make $50k/year and up plus benefits for driving a bus and they should be happy to do it for minimum wage and no benefits. Well you know what? There’s always someone desperate and willing to take *your* job for less than you’re making too. Doesn’t make it right, so using language like “out of line” is unnecessarily contentious.

Of course, TriMet hasn’t done much to say positive things about the union in the media. Like the recent incident on the 57 where a driver asked a woman with a fussy child to leave – GM Neil McFarlane tells the Portland Tribune that he’s putting the union “on notice.” Well wait, if this was an isolated incident and most operators are not getting any complaints, what’s with the “on notice” business? That makes it sound like it’s a common occurrence when it is not.

…Empower, trust, stand behind……Empower, trust, stand behind…

Then the sniping, which had been somewhat subtle in the budget tool, moved onto a full-on attack. Recently added to the dead center of TriMet’s main page is this image:

The only thing the future depends on?

This links to a page with a very one-sided description of the negotiations,  blaming the union for failing to consider “modest” changes while neglecting to mention TriMet’s own fault in failing to adhere to collective bargaining laws.

“Legal maneuvering to delay progress” is apparently code for “filing ULPs, as is the union’s right, when TriMet violates collective bargaining law toward a contract agreement.” The specific content of these “modest changes” aside, all parties still have to follow the law in how this is done. This would be like me saying “You know, my phone bill is too high. I think I’m only going to pay $20/month. That’s a modest change” and then not understanding why my phone company gets a bit cross about it.

On the sidebar of this page are links to “news” articles:

You can twist perception; reality won’t budge

… if by “news” we mean “editorial opinions.”  You want a news article about this? Try the Oregonian’s “TriMet broke state labor laws in contract dispute with union, Oregon board rules.” Why isn’t that in the sidebar? It’s certainly relevant to the topic, and explains the delay in waiting for the ERB to rule on the ULPs.

And what’s the point of this page? The public isn’t involved in union negotiations at all, that’s between ATU 757 & TriMet. Though in Neil’s recent KGW appearance, (for reference, budget talk starts around 11:38; union talk around 12:12; no-strike status discussed at 15:09) it sounds like he’s got an interest in changing the no-strike/binding arbitration law (at about 16:15). Should we be expecting a ballot measure from TriMet this November? Otherwise this page looks like it’s telling riders (who maybe just went to TriMet to use the trip planner, not get involved in politics) that because the union is being greedy & difficult, their bus service will be cut. What does that accomplish?

Empower, trust, stand behind?

But okay, fine. You want to bring union workers in line with non-union workers? Well then, we’ll just take that to its logical conclusion. Let’s see… about 30% of our buses have no air conditioning, so to help save money, we’ll disable the A/C in about 30% of TriMet offices, like, oh I don’t know, the top floor of Center Street to start. And just like operators use seniority to sign good runs, non-union employees can use how long they’ve been at TriMet to bid for a good office. So to the newly hired Executive Director of HR? Sorry my friend, you’ll probably get stuck with no air conditioning. Good thing Oregon summers are more or less mild. But don’t worry! Every hour or so you’ll be allowed to get up, drink some ice water, and use the bathroom, as long as you don’t take more than 10 minutes to do all that.

By the way, everyone will be on scheduled bathroom times, just so you know.

Then in winter, on certain days, the audio in the above video will be played at 90 decibels for the duration of your workday. You will be permitted to take 5 minute breaks during this time, and we will bring people in at regular intervals to tell you that they’re cold and that you suck for being late. Oh, and did we decide to raise fares? We’ll also have these people spit on you, swear at you, and hit you because the service is more expensive. We’ll even bring in mother-daughter fight teams to threaten you until someone else steps in! But wait, you say you’re, oh, an HR Manager or a Planner III and didn’t have anything to do with that decision?

Funny, neither do bus drivers, but guess who bears the brunt of people’s anger over the cost of fares and long wait times between buses or trains? Hint – it’s not the people that actually vote those things into practice. But the frontline workers (aka union) are sure being set up to take the fall by things like TriMet’s webpage on how the future of TriMet service depends on getting the union “in line”.

Hmmm, what else… we’ll have to figure out some way to expose the office workers to diesel fumes, urine and vomit and other biohazards that the frontline workers encounter, split shifts and night work instead of a cushy 8-5 M-F schedule, offices that (like many buses) leak rainwater on you for the duration of your shift, broken seats that you can’t get out of that cause back and leg injuries… That would be even. That’d be about square.

Borrowed picture – we’ll make sure you have caution tape and newspaper in case someone comes into your office and pees in one of your chairs.

Now is this a really dumb idea? OF COURSE IT IS! It’s a logical absurdity, not a logical conclusion. Union and non-union workers at TriMet do different jobs to make the whole system work, and that’s okay. And so they get compensated for those jobs differently – and that’s okay too. That’s the key point.

Look, not to keep bringing up a topic just to be depressing, but it’s not the non-union workers who are dying every few months from illnesses that have a documented history of high occurrence in public transportation workers. Taking care of the workers whose jobs (a) are unquestionably necessary to the organization’s mission of providing public transportation service and (b) pose health risks above and beyond those faced by non-union workers by providing them health benefits above and beyond those received by non-union workers? Seems like a wise investment to me…

But hey, what do I know, right?

Empower, trust, stand behind…

Are we really broke?

It seems strange that this $12-17 million shortfall was announced last year, not very long after GM McFarlane had mentioned an improving economy and the ability to bring back fare inspectors, or the fare increase last September which was sufficient to restore service on lines that had been reduced. Were we aware of this impending shortfall then? It had sounded like things were improving.

Also, it hasn’t really come up in any of the benefits discussions, but minirunners (i.e. part time bus operators) are already paying for health coverage for their spouses and families. And I have talked with other operators who would not necessarily be opposed to that as well, IF cuts were in fact being made at all levels of the agency and there was a visible reduction in spending by TriMet.

But, see, there’s not anything to suggest that’s what would happen.

Because of the Portland-Milwaukie light rail project, we are already planning to borrow $40 million against our future operations budget, and last year a request was put before the TriMet board for permission to borrow an additional $20 million if needed. So assume for the sake of argument that the union says “Yeah ok, we’ll cover 50% of our health care costs” – is that even going to matter? This time next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, we’re going to be in the same boat, but probably looking at a bigger hole in the budget. We’re $17 million short at present. Now add another $40-60 million to that for the Orange Line, which we haven’t even spent yet. Is that going to be blamed on the union?

As much as TriMet may say that no money has been spent on Milwaukie construction and won’t be until FY 2013, this smacks of “I’m broke right now, but it’s ok, I put this expensive purchase on my credit card so I don’t have to worry about it.” There’s going to come a point where we do need to start paying for it. And sure, maybe TriMet’s share of the project is only 5% of the total cost, but hey now… 5% of $1.5 billion is still $75 million (or perhaps about $50 million as Neil answered in the Twitter Chat), and that’s nothing to sneeze at when we’re in bad shape financially.

And we may not directly be paying for the construction at this very minute. But does that mean no money has been spent on the Orange Line at all? I’m genuinely asking – I know that these non-union positions have been opened at TriMet to support the Orange Line – is this counted as part of the project budget?

  • Structural Engineer: $63,772.80 – $79,726.40
  • Engineer I – Construction Inspector: $49,142.00 – $61,430.00
  • Coordinator – Public Art & Architecture: $44,990.40 – $56,243.20
  • System Safety Specialist: $58,510.40 – $73,132.80
  • Engineer IV: $75,587.20 – $94,473.60
  • Planner III: $58,510.40 – $73,132.80
  • Project Control Manager: $82,201.60 – $102,731.20
  • Senior Estimator: $69,472.00 – $86,840.00
  • Project Mitigation Manager: $69,472.00 – $86,840.00
  • Engineer II: $53,643.20 – $67,059.20
  • Administrative Assistant: $2,981.33 – $3,577.60 Monthly
  • Director, Real Property: $89,315.20 – $111,633.60
  • Coordinator, Environmental Permits: $5,314.40 – $6,643.87 Monthly
  • Engineer IV: $75,587.20 – $94,473.60

If there was no “We’re so broke” contention, especially with regard to the union contract, I admit that I’m not sure I’d bat an eye at any of that. Jobs for people? (even if some of them may be short-term positions, I didn’t check) Expanding service? And rail service, because in case you haven’t picked up on it, I like rail? Great! But this gung-ho plan for the Orange Line, borrowed against the future operations budget, the current shortfall of which is being blamed on union workers because despite all those new positions added we can’t look to the 13% of non-union workers to balance the budget? Not so great.

Empower, trust, stand behind.
Empower, trust, stand behind.

You know, maybe more of the management in TriMet’s 13% need to adopt that idea.

#askneil

Thus concludes TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane’s hour long Twitter chat on the budget. Just for record keeping, I posted the entire thing behind the jump (and apologies to the RSS readers because I don’t know if that will work for you so this is probably ridiculously long).

Edit – Since this was getting a lot of hits, I cleaned up the Twitter chat for readability, deleting a lot of the whitespace & redundant hashtags and resorting it so that top to bottom reads oldest to newest. I’d like to thank the “Find/Replace” and “Sort” functions of Microsoft Excel for making this possible.

The format of this is still a little choppy, so if you prefer, you can also read the chat on Twitter. You shouldn’t need a Twitter account for though sometimes older posts don’t load if you aren’t logged in. All of the chat and other posts tagged with #askneil can be accessed here.

Click here for the entire chat plus questions that were asked prior to the chat starting