I am so sick of hearing people who have never driven a bus or operated a train in their lives go on about how extravagantly generous operator health benefits are. They’ve never actually done the work and therefore have no comprehension of the physical demands of the job or the health impact it has. The detrimental health effect of being a transit operator is not a matter of opinion. There is an extensive body of research on the health risks of the job and strong links between working as a transit operator and increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and chronic illnesses. And that’s the reason why the union had negotiated to have a higher emphasis on benefits than hourly wages – things like raises had been turned down in the past in favor of maintaining health benefits to mitigate those risks.

Yes, benefits are high in comparison to wages for TriMet operators, but overall wages are lower than other transit districts (e.g. TriMet bus operators make between $13.83 – $25.13 hourly, King County Metro bus operators in Seattle range $19.93 – $28.47 hourly). And yes, non-union workers at TriMet pay more for health care than union workers, but considering (as a whole), non-union workers are more likely to be working in a climate-controlled office environment during normal business hours and not in safety-sensitive positions whereas union workers work in all weather conditions at all times of the day in safety-sensitive positions, I don’t think that health care is an unreasonable part of union worker compensation.

Several months ago, TriMet lost a ruling by the Employee Relations Board where the union had filed an Unfair Labor Practice against TriMet for unilaterally making changes to the arbitration offer away from the bargaining table. That’s not the way these things are supposed to work – TriMet should have presented the proposed changes to the union as part of negotiations prior to inserting them in the arbitration offer, and the ERB agreed with the union’s complaint, so TriMet is now required to remove those changes. That’s how the law works. It’s funny (not really) how TriMet is asking the Employee Relations Board to reconsider its ruling. Despite the budget shortfall and putting “everything on the table” for consideration, well, we can’t touch anything related to Portland Milwaukie rail (including Uncanny Bambi), and spending close to half a million dollars to hire four executives & managers, well, those are “mission critical.” But scapegoating the union for the budget shortfall (when, let’s be honest here, if TriMet didn’t violate state law in the first place, that decision wouldn’t have happened) is apparently fair game. Why is that contract & working relationship not given the same immunity as the public art budget?

I mean, here’s a thought – can we maybe agree that taking care of the men and women who keep the system running is “mission critical”?

You wouldn’t have known this because it wouldn’t be in the news, but a rail operator passed away last week.  Another rail operator had passed away earlier this summer, and several other operators have died over the last few years – we’re not talking “died in an accident” or “of old age”, we’re talking people in their 50s dying from cancer, heart attack, stroke. Again, maybe the public wouldn’t be so quick to say that operator benefits are overly generous if it were their friends and coworkers dying every few months. Seriously, can anyone else name at least seven of their coworkers who died over the last 3 years?  Because I can name seven rail operators. And let me tell you, being able to do that really sucks.

But because there’s no mainstream coverage of operator health issues… sheesh, even TriMet’s official releases don’t back operators up (the most recent one blames the union negotiations for the budget shortfall), all that comes out is the public saying that the union’s “free ride” should be over, or the “union pigs should stop feeding at the trough”, or “since times are tough, operators should be sharing the pain along with everyone else.”

Oh I’m sorry, is seven dead operators not “sharing the pain” enough for you?

7 responses to “Scapegoat

  1. Very. Well. Said. Hey “O”, what about this? Better hurry, KGW’s gonna scoop ya!

  2. Sorry to hear that another operator passed away last week. Although I’m only a transit blogger, it makes me mad to hear people rave about how good of healthcare benefits that TriMet operators get (isn’t that going to be cut soon, or has it already happened?), because, in reality, they don’t know a thing about how things are for a transit bus or rail operator. Even though I have not experienced it myself, I do see, to an extent (and from what I’ve heard from TriMet’s operators) how badly transit operators do really need these benefits.
    Again, I’m sorry about those operators passing away, it is really tragic for somebody who has provided (to some) an essential transit service to the public (often for years) to pass away, unnoticed by those who, even unknowingly, rode every day with that operator.

  3. I do commend you on this post. I laughed when I read that those Directors and Managers were mission critical. The Directors job could pay for another two Trainers in the Light Rail Training Department. I always thought training was pretty important to assuring that operations are safe. I would think that having an understaffed (severely so, there are only two trainers for Light Rail for 150 some odd operators) and overworked training department would be not only unsafe but unhealthy. Good Job with the post.

  4. Once again, the MAX FAQS blog accurately depicts the subject matter being investigated by the author.
    If I could I would give the author of MAX FAQS an award.

  5. Tweeted this out to everyone and made sure to address it to Joe Rose, Katu, KGW and anyone else news related I could think of, even if it didn’t make sense. This is brilliant blogging and a point incredibly well made and it actually breaks my heart… seven. Seven fucking co-workers. And that’s just from you… how can anyone even stare this down with a sneer? It’s a terrifying idea, especially taking into account how many amazing bus drivers I’ve met.

    Really, no matter how TriMet tries to turn the riders against the operators, we need to recognize that both sides are getting unfairly screwed, and that this is just an example of what is really wrong with this situation.

  6. What’s the story on hearing loss in train operators that go through the tunnel on a regular basis? I measured that at 90 DB a year or so ago!

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