“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


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.


20 responses to ““Empower. Trust. Stand Behind.”

  1. Well, you did what everybody else has been trying to do but couldn’t quite pull it off.

  2. I could quibble with some of your arguments (some of the ideas are, I think, penny-wise and pound-foolish) but the bottom line is that the real problem isn’t the district or the union, it’s the ever increasing costs of health insurance and that neither side has really been proposing a good solution (instead of just a funding fix).

    Also, if had got the Web Coordinator position, I would at least object to the “out-of-line wages” phrase. I haven’t heard of them actually being a problem, and given the multiple jobs of an operator plus the fact that you can’t get them without working at the agency for years, they don’t seem terribly unreasonable.

    • Well, the arguments were more to point out an absurdity, not to make a serious case for that. I mean, it doesn’t make logistical sense for non-union TriMet departments to function on graveyard or split shifts, for example. And I agree that the costs of health insurance is the source of the problem here, but I continue to take issue with the way that TriMet is laying the blame on the union being unreasonable while not mentioning their role in why the negotiations are taking so long.

      • If it is true that TriMet’s health care burden is growing way past their revenues, that’s a serious problem (or do you think their claim is false?).

        But, yes, I do think there are good and not-so-good ways to deal with the problem. And that at least some of the proposals (such as requiring employees to pay just to be on the plan) are a fix and not a solution.

        What I’d like to see is a universal (e.g. state-wide) plan that gives everybody a fund so they can find the best values and pay for the care directly, bypassing insurance if the choose. Recognize that health care is as essential as education and, like an employee’s education, make it so they don’t have to deal with it (I would expect a portion of the budget to be taken to pay for it).

      • Let me add this:
        Especially since it seems to be unusual, I don’t think that the district should have to pay for the health care of the employees for the rest of their lives. But I don’t think retirees should be left stranded without access to care either.

        And as I put in the speech I was going to use on Wednesday: As a rider, I don’t want to see more district money going towards health care, but I don’t think employees deserve what amounts to a pay cut either.

  3. Good post, but a few comments and questions.

    1) Planning staff and the like who are working on funded projects get paid out of the project’s budget–so the MLR engineering positions are (I believe) not coming out of operations.

    2) You mention seniority and work rules, and the right of the most senior operators to bid on jobs first–in the humorous context of giving a newly-appointed executive a lousy office. But here’s a serious question for you: In most non-union professional careers, those with the most experience and the highest pay are generally expected to take the toughest assignments–which makes some sense, as those are the ones who are most qualified to do the difficult work. In many unionized shops, including TriMet, it’s the opposite: senior drivers get to bid on runs before junior ones, and many of ’em take the suburban runs where you can count the average passenger load on your fingers, leaving the crushloaded 57 or 72 to the more junior operators. From a public/agency perspective, wouldn’t you want your most experience drivers driving the HARDEST runs, hauling fully-loaded busses through rush-hour inner city traffic?

    3) On the same topic, certain positions–including MAX operator and various categories of supervisor–are only available to those with lots of experience behind the wheel of a bus. Why would driving a bus be a requirement for driving a train (or vice versa), or doing non-operator work like checking fares? If I’m mistaken on this, let me know.

    • 1. I was thinking that was likely the case.

      2. Short answer – yes. But there are a lot of other factors that make a run desirable aside from where it goes or how many passengers it carries. How much overtime is written into the run is probably the biggest motivating factor, as well as how much break time (and how long you go between breaks), what time it starts, what time it gets off, what kind of equipment does it use (bus-specific, rail runs don’t have that), is it out of a yard/garage near where you live, etc. So the trade off is that there will be high seniority operators who could get a quiet run if they wanted it, but would be inclined to go for one of those crushload runs if, for example, it’s got great overtime.

      3. It’s true that pretty much all of the operations-related union positions start from the entry-level minirunner position (mechanics have their own career path separate from this). It’s not necessarily lots of experience as a bus operator that’s needed – you need a minimum of 6 months at bus to apply for rail, at least 6 months at rail to apply for Controller or Supervisor, I think a year at bus to be a Bus Supervisor… Why? I’m honestly not sure. I assume it’s somewhere in the contract, maybe as a seniority thing. It was like that before I ever got there. Going back to 1986 at rail, the first operators had all been bus operators & the first rail supervisors had all been bus supervisors. Nowadays if a bus supervisor wants to be a rail supervisor, they’d have to go through rail training and work as an operator first. The whole system is very seniority-driven, so I doubt that would be likely to change, but who knows?

      • Actually, what they could do if they really wanted to is to do what they did down in LA and set up separate construction authorities (this was done after rail projects were suffering from numerous problems that, thankfully, generally don’t happen here).

        Crush-load runs can possibly mean the ability to time slip for even more time. Plus, I’ve heard from some that busy runs make their day go by faster; it depends on the operator.

        And it makes sense to have former operators as supervisors, dispatchers and controllers so they’ll understand the job.

        • And it makes sense to have former operators as supervisors, dispatchers and controllers so they’ll understand the job.

          For bus operators to become bus supervisors & dispatchers, absolutely. For rail operators to become rail supervisors & controllers, again yes. But bus operator to fare inspector? And to an extent, bus operator to rail operator? Those jobs are pretty different, and a great understanding of the bus operator job doesn’t necessarily translate to the other role.

          • That may be true (and I know some who think they would love to be a MAX operator if they didn’t have to go through bus).

            Overall, I think there’s three reasons why it’s done the way it is: TriMet can pick from people it already employs and has records on (bus operating acts as a proving ground), it creates a career advancement path and the union probably wants existing members to be hired. Bus operators already have the knowledge of fares and the system and experience dealing with riders to be an inspector.

            In one of the Self Service Fare Collection documents or articles, the hiring process for the then-new inspectors was described.

  4. Somewhere, in this expansive light rail system, one of the operators happens to be the smartest person even remotely involved with transit.

  5. It is the management that is putting forth the argument that unionized workers need to follow in the steps on non unionized workers.
    In the tongue and cheek editorial here we see the complete folly of the management assertions.
    MANAGEMENT WANTS IT BOTH WAYS, they want us to be like them but then again no way, we can’t be like them.

  6. It’s been about a year now since I’ve first started following your blog, and you have a wonderful voice, and a passion for rail. This article really pointed out both sides to the case, I mean you’ve stated a few times that the union is willing to negotiate. On the flip side, TriMet just goes down the path of many other states, cities, and transit authorities which is to just blame everything on the union. What will/do they blame the budget deficit on when unions are out of the equation? The economy, the fare evaders, the lack of ridership? It’s ridiculous to me that the association that writes your checks and is supposed to stand by your side as an employer is constantly trying to make you out as the greedy bad guys.

    • Thanks Kyle. The whole situation is very frustrating. I don’t like how TriMet claims to be broke while spending so much on expansion that’s going to come at a cost of existing service, I don’t like how this pits riders and operators against each other (who really should be natural allies), and I don’t like the complete lack of acknowledgement of why there’s been a delay, just blaming it on “legal maneuvering” on the part of the union. I just wish everyone would play by the rules, especially the people in charge.

      • I’m not an expert on it (somebody correct me if I’m wrong), but I think the problem with the PMLR project is that the funds come from federal money marked for capital investment and not usable for operations (the same way the stimulus money was not allowed to be put to operations, but TriMet somehow got a few million out of it for operations after all). The problem, from my corporate view of the problem, is that the federal government doesn’t let TriMet transfer capital project funds to operations if needed. That’s why the project goes on unhindered even if we have such a budget problem. Therefore, the error is not TriMet but the federal government (as usual) in this part of the problem, not to tackle the union problem.

        Please, if I’m wrong, correct me. I’d love to be more educated on this!

        • That’s correct as far as I understand it as well, as far as PMLR funding goes. At the same time though, there are those who question why TriMet seems to take a more proactive approach to securing funding for projects like PMLR and not something like (for example) bus replacement. Federal funding is also available to replace 40′ buses that are 12 years or older. 30% of our fleet is 15 years+, and another 44% is at 10-15 years, but our bus replacement is not keeping pace with our development. Is it because development looks more newsworthy, because there’s money to be made in transit-oriented development, etc? I don’t know.

          On paper, I’m not opposed to PMLR, or rail expansion in general. I do wonder about priorities though… I understand that there’s a possibility that if we waited on PMLR now it’d be only more expensive if we tried to do it in the future. I just don’t like the timing of this with the union contract negotiations, because while most of the project will be funded federally, TriMet itself is still on the hook for a percentage of it and will be drawing from the Operations budget to pay for it in the future. So to say that the future of TriMet depends on how the union contract is negotiated is not entirely accurate and doesn’t acknowledge that PMLR will have an impact as well.

          • The good news (at least financially) is that, unlike the Green Line to an extent and especially WES, it will replace existing bus service and increase efficiency on others. The real questions are what will be the net subsidy in the corridor compared to today, what will be the subsidy per ride, and how much of TriMet’s project funding share and any net subsidy increase will get covered by revenues from the payroll tax rate increase (keeping in mind they may have been limited by the economy).

  7. Jason is wrong, the 33 bus will still run.

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