Tag Archives: union

Transparency, trust, and TriMet

We’re sorry we didn’t outright tell the public that as we were cutting service and raising fares, we were going to give ourselves raises.

But we’re not at all sorry that we now make more money.

I think OPAL gets original credit for spotting this one first in April of last year. In a readthrough of the proposed 2013 budget, they noticed that TriMet doubled the contingency budget, from $10 million up to $20 million. No apparent reason was given, though there seemed to be some suggestion that it was needed in the event TriMet lost the arbitration with the union. OPAL members testified at board meetings, questioning the contingency and stating that both doubling that and raising fares was a too-conservative approach to the budget at the expense of bus riders, and suggested if it were to be increased at all, it should at most go from $10 million to $15 million.

Now we find out that at least part of the purpose of increasing the contingency was to give raises to the top execs at TriMet. As the PortlandAfoot story points out, the raises didn’t show up in the budget as raises given for merit. There’s no mention of these raises in TriMet’s anti-union webpages, which still state that there’s been a non-union pay freeze for four years. Okay, fine, maybe there was a freeze for four years, but if my pay didn’t change for four years and then you gave me a $7000 raise on top of my $130k salary? (an actual “merit increase” from the list) You know, I don’t think my feelings would be hurt too much.

General manager Neil McFarlane is now issuing the non-apology of “We’re sorry we weren’t more transparent.” Actually Neil, I believe when you falsify the budget with a salary that is out of date, and the board knowingly passes that even though it intentionally had incorrect information, and salary raises are hidden in a contingency fund and not listed for what they are, that’s what we call “outright lying”, not just “not being transparent enough.”

The story was also covered by the Oregonian, which includes other gems, such as “We had to give Shelly Lomax a $14,000 raise because as the only woman on staff, we were paying her a lot less than the men” and that union president Bruce Hansen actually took a pay cut when he became president of the union. And of course, general manager Neil McFarlane defending the move, saying it was done to retain these executives and managers (worked out real well for ya with former Director of Finance Beth Dehamel, a $20,000 raise and then she left a few months later.)

But Why bother retaining talent when we outsource work that could be done in-house anyway?

Back during Neil’s Twitter town hall chat, a lot of folks (myself included) questioned some of TriMet’s spending decisions, such as marketing. Now I’m not opposed to a marketing department, I realize that theoretically they fulfill an important role in keeping riders informed. But what I don’t understand is why TriMet has a marketing department, yet we outsource marketing work. Quoting myself from an older post:

But for the last ten years, the now-defunct external company ID Branding has been doing TriMet’s marketing and design work rather than TriMet’s own internal Marketing department.

That means the 5 Dirty Words poems on buses and trains, the Green Means Go campaign surrounding the opening of the Green Line, the recent What Makes This Place Great? promotion (which, conveniently has been used to cover up the aforementioned failed #1 Transit ads on the trains – I suppose the fact that ID Branding is now out of business explains why the WMTPG website remains un-updated with several sections still “coming soon.” Hope we didn’t pay for that!), the Rider’s Voice book aimed at helping people switch from paratransit to fixed route – all of these were outsourced to ID Branding.

This really makes me wonder what our Marketing department is doing if we’re outsourcing marketing work to another company. Are these all things we can’t do in-house? How much money was spent on the ID Branding contract, and were we planning on spending more with any other marketing firms now that they’re gone? Can we maybe pick one or the other, either outsource all marketing or do everything in-house, but not both?

EDIT: Numbers acquired. ID Branding contract was $1,862,437.00 budgeted, $1,497,547.95 billed, contract numbers ra020310ktx and rc070408dgx. Assuming we don’t outsource more marketing at the conclusion of the ID Branding contract, that’d be nearly $2 million saved.

The ID Branding thing was a while ago, but you might have noticed TriMet hosting a bunch of contests lately – “Be Seen Be Safe“, “Drive Less Save More“, and a current one for teens to make a safety video, just to name a few. But here’s the interesting part of the fine print at the bottom of these contests:

offerpopPowered by Offerpop you say?

Turns out Offerpop is an online marketing promotional tool. Pricing is based on how many Facebook and Twitter followers you have. So let’s see, TriMet’s Facebook has about 8400 followers, and TriMet’s Twitter has about 9100. So that’s about 17,500 followers, and depending on whether or not this is pay-by-month or an annual subscription, TriMet is paying $360-$400 a month for contests. And because someone is bound to say it, yes I know that that’s just a drop in the budget bucket. BUT once again, why is this being outsourced at all? Is there seriously no one in the marketing department who could organize contests like this  as part of their regular job duties?

But okay, let’s aim a little bit higher. We know that TriMet’s got a handsomely compensated legal team, several of whom were on the stealth payraise list. And we know that TriMet has recently filed suit against Clackamas county. Here’s the part I don’t understand – take a look at the lawsuit file itself. Specifically, the footnote:

ater wynne

Now I’m no legal expert, but maybe there’s a reader here who is and can provide a logical explanation why TriMet hired an external lawfirm for this lawsuit and didn’t make use of the lawyers on staff. Because I’m really perplexed by this.

Edit: And in the comments, Engineer Scotty delivers – this is apparently standard procedure.

Once again, I find myself wondering – why bother making a big deal about retaining these highly paid managers & lawyers & executives if you pay other companies to do work that could be done by them?

Fix the ship? Blow it up? Whatever.

A while back, a friend of mine did a guest post on the contract negotiations and the union’s health care costs, and that post includes what is probably my favorite quote summing up the situation:

another perspective

Well. That pretty much accurately describes what ended up happening. Before the news about the executive raises, Joseph Rose at the Oregonian was the only one covering this story of Neil’s decision to expand the executive ranks, which I think is a shame because, like the executive raises, it’s something the public has the right to be aware of, and protest if necessary.

So former director of operations Bob Nelson (currently receiving a pension of about $48k/year from TriMet; had left the agency in 2007 making just shy of $160k/year) is coming back as “Interim Deputy General Manager” and I’m sorry, all I can think of when I hear that is this:

jr crimefighter

But wait, it gets better. The purpose of his job will be to assess the position of Deputy General Manager and determine if it should be permanent. Man, I wish someone would give me a 6-figure salary, and then at the end of a year ask me if they should keep paying me that (on top of the pension I’m getting that’s already more than many people make in a year). Do we really think he’s going to say, “No, this isn’t the best use of TriMet’s resources”? Anyone who would say that, well, here’s your sign.

Next up is Barbara Ramirez Spencer who will be hired as a consultant, and I had posted this in response on Twitter but I know I’ve got blog readers who don’t follow me there so here it is again. From the Oregonian article, this a quote from Mary Fetsch on why Ramirez Spencer is being sought out:

Ok, that’s a lot of syllables to tell us… what, exactly? Strip out the buzzwords and management lingo and what value is she going to add to TriMet? How is this going to help riders? What is this going to do for the benefit of the general public? Was there seriously not a better use for the oodles of money TriMet apparently has laying around?

Bonus: she serves on the super-secret budget task force (I believe the same one that greenlighted the executive raises) which has meetings that the public is not allowed to attend. Clearly no conflict of interests there…

Oh, that Rascally Union..

But as far as TriMet is concerned, there’s no problem paying out raises to executives while slashing service, and threatening to cut 70% of service. No, the expenses are all the union’s fault because of the cost of union health care benefits. (By the way, that 70% service cut is the projection for 2025. I find it doubtful that the powers that be will choose to forgo their raises during that time, so why is the union the only side expected to concede?)

You might’ve seen in the news that a bus driver was punched in the face the other day. And a supervisor was assaulted at Rose Quarter last week (neither the supervisor nor the operator who stepped in to assist were injured. This didn’t make the news, and neither do countless instances of drivers being spit on or threatened). But come on now, Neil keeps repeating that the union benefits need to be brought in line with non-union benefits, and asking “Are we a healthcare provider or a transit agency“?

Well, when was the last time Neil had an angry customer punch him in the face or spit on him? When was the last time he had to step in to assist Mary Fetsch because an angry drunk was shoving her around? Heck, when’s the last time Neil got a kidney or bladder infection from driving a 100+degree bus for 9 hours with inadequate breaks? Tell you what Neil, when your health risks on the job are the same as the front line union workers’, then we can talk all you want about how the health compensation should be the same. When non-union employees and retirees pass away as frequently as union workers, then we can have this discussion about the same health care for everyone. Remember that the reason why the union health plan is different is that because of the detrimental health aspects of the jobs (especially when compared to office workers), the union has historically negotiated compensation in the form of benefits rather than pay raises, and now TriMet wants the union to yield both.

Look, I really do understand the perspective of the general public in this fight. A friend of mine and his wife (neither of them are TriMet employees) together pay about $700 a month in healthcare premiums, just for the two of them. Yeah, that sucks, and absolutely, the union health insurance premium costs are much more palatable in comparison:

union rates

But to be fair and in the interest of transparency (for real, not TriMet’s definition of transparency), here are the non-union employee premiums – in other words, what Neil and his merry band of executives pay. Again in fairness, I will note that the part-time non-union employees are really getting wrung over…

non union rates

So you figure Neil is probably paying about $75/month to insure himself and his wife, while TriMet picks up $1170 of the tab? Not too shabby for a guy pulling in almost a quarter million per year. Funny how we don’t hear the word “Cadillac” applied to this side of things. And no one mentions the non-union retirement trust (maybe because info on it is so hard to find), worth over $80 million and into which TriMet pays $4.5 million annually. The source document for that has been removed from TriMet’s webpage, but I saved  a copy for you guys so you don’t have to fork out public records request fees in case you wanted to read it. Did I mention that transparency is how we roll here at MAX FAQs? But no, none of this is considered a problem or a bloated cost… that criticism is reserved for what the union is compensated.

Fun fact: Starbucks spends more on employee health benefits than coffee, yet unlike Neil, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz does not seem confused as to what the purpose of his company is. In fact, he refused to cut benefits for part time employees.

What’s coming next

We’re still waiting to hear the result of a ruling on whether or not the contract negotiations will be open to the public. TriMet is strongly opposed to public negotiations, and the union is strongly in favor of public negotiations. From the union’s perspective, TriMet has not demonstrated that they can be trusted to be transparent (golly gee, imagine that), and TriMet’s demand that only “unaffiliated members of the press” be permitted to attend is unacceptable.

I’ve heard some rumors going around (let me repeat, unsubstantiated rumors) that money for that contingency fund will be used to pay scabs if TriMet management is able to overturn the ruling that the transit union cannot strike and disputes will be settled with binding arbitration. Pretty much every news source I found for that proposed bill talks about “allowing the union to strike” but ignores the flipside – such a bill would also allow TriMet to lock the union out. Personally I don’t know of any current employees who are interested in striking – it’s not good for the workers, it’s not good for the public, and generally speaking the operators are genuinely interested in serving the public. But would TriMet take the action of locking the union out until the contract is resolved? Hate to say it, but the hostility in the environment makes me think yes, they would.

Let me pull this one back up:

another perspective

I think there are a lot of TriMet union employees with this mindset. Yes, there’s an awareness that the health plan at TriMet is better than a lot of people get elsewhere. Yes, if EVERYONE in the company needs to pitch in and sacrifice and do their part and all to keep things moving, people will generally be agreeable to that. But as long as the union is painted as the bad guys while the executive elites give themselves raises on the sly, downplay their own pensions and benefits, and try to pit riders against workers, those executives are not going to get an ounce of compromise or cooperation. Nor should they expect any.

Open Letter to Our TriMet Passengers and Community

Editor’s note: I’m not the author of this, but I really don’t think anyone minds it being reposted here. I took the liberty of linking some relevant material from older MAXFAQs posts, Al M’s blog, the Oregonian, and other sources to support the claims made.

Over the past several years, TriMet’s top management has repeatedly used budget woes as their excuse for raising fares and reducing transit service to this community. Then, they point the finger at the union workforce, blaming the costs of health benefits for workers and retirees. We believe that claim to be false; but, it is difficult to counter an agency spending over $500,000 each year on PR to spread its version of the truth. Now, it’s time you heard the truth from TriMet’s workers.

We are the people who keep the system running. We watch how this bureaucratic agency works from the inside, we know where its skeletons are buried, and we are saddened by how dysfunctional it has become. Here are the serious consequences of that dysfunction.

TRIMET’S DYSFUNCTION PUTS SAFETY AT RISK. It’s not just fatigued drivers, it’s also buying new buses with enormous blind spots while forcing train operators to frequently drive without any side vision at all. It’s a bus dispatch system programmed to cut off calls after two minutes, even when it’s a driver reporting an angry man with a gun. It’s buses and rail cars so filthy that they’re making operators and passengers sick. And those are just a few of the many serious safety issues we deal with daily.

TRIMET’S DYSFUNCTION PUTS SERVICE QUALITY AT RISK. It’s not just the reduced runs, it’s also forcing us to issue fare evasion citations when we know the fare machines are down. It’s making schedules so tight it’s impossible to guarantee our passengers will make their connections. It’s reducing the number of bus shelters in neighborhoods where we serve the highest number of elderly and disabled passengers.

TRIMET’S DYSFUNCTION PUTS PUBLIC FUNDS AT RISK. It’s not just spending millions on new furniture, it’s also signing what the Portland Business Journal calls “the biggest office lease of the year.” It’s spending nearly $2 million dollars giving new buses a “nose job” so they’ll look like trains. It’s having 161 managers being paid a base wage of over $75,000 a year, 55 of whom get over $100,000. This is to supervise a schedule-driven transit system service that can essentially run itself.

TRIMET’S DYSFUNCTION PUTS WORKERS’ HEALTH AT RISK. People think our jobs are easy, but the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Labor indicate transit operators become disabled earlier, die younger and get assaulted more than people working in other professions. Studies have called it the most stressful job, resulting in absenteeism, chronic illnesses and high medical costs well into retirement. We have a small pension plan (not PERS), and only a small minority of workers who have retired early with full health coverage.

We are public servants. We are not perfect. Some of us are far from perfect. But we are two thousand people whose work lives are dedicated to providing you with the best service we can. Meanwhile, TriMet’s PR department is using your tax money to mislead us all, issue after issue. What we ask is that you consider our viewpoint in the months ahead and evaluate the facts for yourselves.

The People Who Keep Public Transit Rolling

Learn more at transitvoice.org

Health care and the sickout

And here we go with round 2 of this mess.

Portland not pictured, but would fall somewhere between #12 and #64. Source

I’ve already gone into why TriMet operators receive those health benefits – the job has severe negative health impacts, and so the union has negotiated a lot of the compensation to union employees to be in the form of health care rather than straight pay, which is why the hourly rate is lower than other cities. And the health care is not “free” any more than the paycheck you get from your job is “free” money. So effectively, with this announcement of requiring workers to cover some of the health care costs, TriMet union employees are taking a pay cut. And… somehow this became something for the public to be thrilled about?

This is not a zero-sum game.

What, specifically, are you (“you” being anyone calling for the firing of all bus/rail operators or saying anything along the lines of “I’m miserable and broke, therefore we all should be miserable and broke”) thinking that supporting this will accomplish? A bus driver needing to pay more for benefits doesn’t make yours cheaper. Nor does it suddenly require your boss to provide health care as part of your compensation. Your anger should be at them, not at fellow workers who thus far have not been screwed over. By all means be angry at what you may have lost, but don’t misdirect your anger. I don’t know any bus or rail operator who is happy at how much people are suffering right now, and doesn’t have friends/families/loved ones who are also struggling with pay cuts and high health care costs (if they can even afford insurance)

I don’t remember seeing any bus drivers cheering when the news reported that Intel was closing its Hillsboro office, losing 1000 jobs. Or when another 200 Oregonians were laid off when Cessna left the state. Or when another 200 Oregonians lost their jobs when Con-Way decided to outsource. You know why no bus drivers left hundreds of nasty comments on those stories?  Because it sucks when your fellow citizens are faced with pay cuts and/or lose their jobs, that’s why.

No one would blame any of those workers for being angry at being wrung over by their employers, but for some reason TriMet operators aren’t allowed to be upset when the general manager makes a unilateral decision that would change the contract while the contract is still awaiting arbitration? Now that it’s bus drivers (and the rest of the union workers too, but the bus operators are always the main target) as the focal point, suddenly it’s open season on transit operators for the rest of the public? Hundreds of comments across all the major Oregon news sources calling operators “fat”, “stupid”, “pigs” – what are we, in 5th grade again with the name calling? What is wrong with you people?!

Yes, many would. That’s the problem – companies are too eager to pay people next to nothing so they can blow money on their own pet projects.

And so many of those comments just show how ignorant people are – like thinking that TriMet operators are PERS employees (no), or that when your bus or train shows up 10+ minutes late, the driver is doing it because they’re lazy or to spite you, therefore all operators should be fired. Did it never occur to you that when a bus or train is that late, there’s a good chance that operator isn’t going to have time to take a bathroom break for the next few hours in order to try to make up that lost time? Or that they’re late because of traffic or because they’re unfamiliar with the route if it’s not one they usually do? Full confessional time – my first time operating a full trip on a Blue Line train from Cleveland to Hatfield, I was extremely late by the time I got to Hillsboro, not because of any incident that was delaying service or because I wanted to spite my passengers, but because I was so completely new at what I was doing and I didn’t have a very good sense of timing things – and it was my own fault that the train was that late because I was so new. If you were on my train, well, sorry. I did take a bathroom break though before turning around and going back to Cleveland. I’m not sorry for that. There haven’t been new operators in a while to make things run late, but there are plenty of reasons why your bus or train will be late and pretty much none of them have to do with operator spite.

This whole divide and conquer approach is sickening. Operators don’t hate the public (sure, there are some jerks that do, but find me any job that doesn’t have its share of jerks), and the public should not be turning on the operators for this. Want to be angry? Fine! Direct it where it should be directed.

  • Be angry that TriMet paid former General Manager Fred Hansen $40,000 to advise Australia on how to build a transit system. Australia didn’t pay for his services, we did, which then-TriMet board leader “[didn’t] see it as a material issue, expensewise”.
  • Be angry that TriMet poured in $20+ million to a company they knew was failing (but felt was of “little concern”) in order to get WES, because by god, we need commuter rail.

Photo from the Portland Mercury

  • Be angry that the Green Line (which had service cuts before it even opened) was celebrated with a swanky foie gras & cocktails party where executives could congratulate each other on opening the Green Line. You know, I was one of the many nameless, faceless people who did some of the not-so-glamorous work into getting that going… where was my party invite?
  • Be angry that former Executive Director of Operations Steve Banta received a $15,000 retention bonus, stayed until after the first of the year (the stipulation for collecting the bonus) and then promptly left for Phoenix.
  • Be angry about the sneakiness with numbers surrounding the Milwaukie Line (and I say this as someone who obviously likes rail). We’re $130 million short, but then got $27 million from Metro, $20 million from the city of Portland, and a $10 million state grant to which spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says “We all came together quickly, and basically have almost closed that entire gap, and so I think everyone in the region feels very comfortable and really confident that we’re moving forward.”  27+20+10 = 130? Must be that new math.

None of this contributes to you as a rider getting reliable service (well, maybe the WES, but that carries a small fraction of TriMet riders). At least operator health benefits contribute to keeping your bus driver healthy and doing their job so that your bus shows up. And again, this had been part of the mutually agreed upon compensation for employees – and I’m in favor of your employer giving you the same exact thing. So for TriMet to decide that this, this is the breaking point after all of this other nonsense that was just fine and dandy to blow money on is ludicrous.

That being said, I don’t support a sick-out today. I do not fault any driver, mechanic, supervisor, etc who is angry about the way this whole thing is being handled. But I have never liked misdirected anger. Calling a sick-out doesn’t do a thing to hurt the people making these decisions. You think TriMet is going to send the salaried office workers (who don’t carry CDLs) out into the field to fill in for operators who don’t show up? Of course not! Their day isn’t going to be affected one way or the other. All a sick-out would do is screw over the transit dependent, and TriMet management does a good enough job of that on their own. They don’t need operators’ help making it worse.

ATU 757 Rally pics

From the ATU 757’s Rally for the Ride.  Because hey, even though it’s not directly about trains, I figure if you’re reading me, you have an interest in public transportation.

I support Mass Transit

Save Our Ride

I know a common question has been “Why is TriMet building a rail line to Milwaukie at the same time they’re slashing bus service left and right?”  Part of the problem is that transit agencies can’t take federal funds that have been earmarked for capital construction (such as building new lines) and apply those to maintain existing operations.  The ATU is rallying support behind two Congressional bills that would increase funding for public transit (H.R. 2746) and allow transit agencies to direct some of that capital project money into continuing existing service instead of building new, unsustainable service (S. 3412).  If you agree that TriMet and other agencies should focus some of this money on operations, please consider getting involved and showing your support for these bills.

This is the last week where I will have a lot of stuff going on in my personal life, so the posts about MAX questions & answers should resume soon when I have time to write!