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TriMet boss moves toward asking legislature to allow a transit strike

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Update: TriMet says this post is an inaccurate statement about a more nuanced position. I’ve rephrased the headline from “TriMet boss wants legislature to allow a transit strike” to “TriMet boss moves toward asking legislature to allow a transit strike.” I think this accurately captures the situation. Their spokeswoman disagrees. See below for TriMet’s full response.

TriMet GM Neil McFarlane speaks at an ATU rally in 2010TriMet’s top manager confirmed Wednesday that he’s ready to play for all the marbles against his union.

The transit agency is laying the groundwork for a possible law that would allow transit workers to strike, Neil McFarlane said in an interview. If passed, the change would reverse a 2007 state law that sends transit labor disputes into binding arbitration. This is a less public process that, rather than pitting union and management into a head-to-head battle for the public’s goodwill, gives the key decisions to state-appointed officials.

“We’d like to have somebody at the legislature say, ‘TriMet, how’s that working for you?'” McFarlane said in an interview Wednesday.

The agency’s answer, he said, would be “not very well.”

Last fall, a governor-appointed board found that TriMet broke labor rules in its negotiations by introducing new proposals late in the game. The violation may cost TriMet up to $10 million, more than half of the cuts detailed Wednesday.

McFarlane thinks this exchange could prepare the way to reverse the 2007 law, which was a request of TriMet’s union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757.

McFarlane said he ultimately wants to convince workers to pay a larger share of their medical premiums and treatments. He said this would lead them to choose cheaper options, reducing overall costs. He added that the higher costs might be phased in – perhaps only for workers under 55, or only for new hires.

McFarlane called this “an attempt to turn the ship gradually so it’s not painful and nobody falls overboard.”

He also put out a rhetorical olive branch to union workers, who will vote this year on a new union leadership.

“This is not about our employees,” McFarlane said. “But we have embedded union leadership that I think is not addressing the long-term issues that TriMet faces and not thinking about the stability of the place of work that they rely on.”

McFarlane’s statement Wednesday confirmed a rumor first reported last month by blogger Al Margulies.

ATU Local 757 referred a call for comment Wednesday afternoon to president Jon Hunt, who wasn’t immediately available. If I hear from him, I’ll update.

Update: TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says the above interpretation of McFarlane’s statement is “inaccurate” and that “it’s premature to say that’s our strategy.”

She says McFarlane’s comments about the no-strike rule, and its attempts to begin a debate about it in the legislature, should only be interpreted as comments about the slow advance of the current negotiation.

“Does TriMet have any interest in changing the strike law?” I asked.

“Our focus right now is to get this resolved,” Fetsch replied, referring to the ATU contract that’s been in negotiation for several years. “The focus is to have the legislature bring the ATU to the table to resolve this contentius contract.”

I asked Fetsch how the legislature would help bring the ATU to the table, if not through its implicit power to change the 2007 law requested by the union. Fetsch said “the union listens to the legislature and vice versa. … Obviously the legislature can reach out to the union to encourage that this long-delayed process move along.”

I said that in this context, it seemed that raising questions about the no-strike law are a tactic to bring the union to the table.

“We don’t have that tactic,” Fetsch said.

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