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Union contract is ‘slowly strangling’ TriMet, exec tells local leaders

city clubTriMet’s top executive opened up his harshest language yet about his employees’ union in an address Friday to about 100 liberal-leaning Portland elites.

A top TriMet contractor, meanwhile, called for Oregon’s legislature to allow TriMet management to force a strike.

Portland’s transit union is “slowly strangling from a union contract that desperately needs a reset,” TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane told the Portland City Club at its weekly luncheon. Union workers’ current benefits, he said, “put us on a path to becoming a health care agency instead of a transit agency.”

“I know we live in a blue state, a pro-union city,” McFarlane said. “It’s about the math.”

neil speakingMcFarlane also repeated his recent complaints about Oregon’s no-strike law for transit workers.

In 2007, the legislature changed the law to make bus drivers the equals of police and fire by making them strike-prohibited. This means we are bound by interest arbitration – a process whereby a third party decides whether to pick either the union proposal or the management proposal. Since then, I would say TriMet has found itself mired in what seems like a byzantine arbitration process. The ATU has used it to engage in procedural gamesmanship including canceling negotiation sessions, picketing my house and stonewalling negotiations.

Union officials also regularly accuse TriMet of stonewalling negotiations.

david knowlesSpeaking beside McFarlane, longtime local politico David Knowles (now working as Portland area manager for CH2M Hill, a top engineering and planning contractor to TriMet and other local governments) went one step further, explicitly calling for the state to allow transit strikes:

State law treats transit workers the same as police or fire employees. They are not allowed to strike and management is not able to impose a contract if negotiations reach an impasse. Instead, contract differences are submitted to binding interest arbitration in which the arbitrator chooses one side or the other. This process does not work at all in a situation where one party – labor – is protecting the status quo and the other party – management – is seeking major changes in benefits and wages. The status quo wins every time.

The result: an increasingly smaller group of entitled ATU members retain free health care for life while lower seniority members lose their jobs and the rest of us get worse service.

This law must be changed. It is highly unusual for no-strike status to be granted to any group except first responders. It makes sense for police and fire. But nobody is going to die if the number 15 bus stops running.

Knowles also ad-libbed a Portlandia joke, to laughter: If Portland is home to 19-year-olds seeking early retirement, he said, they should apply to become TriMet bus drivers.

After the event, I asked TriMet lobbyist Olivia Clark why no one with TriMet ever talks about asking the legislature to change another law: payroll tax rates.

“Good luck!” Clark replied. “The people who pay those taxes are not willing to pay for health care. They’ve told us that.”

This afternoon, Knowles emailed the full text of his remarks, and TriMet sent McFarlane’s full remarks, too.

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