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
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.