(Interview 3 in our three-part series about the race for president of TriMet’s union.)
“To meet Ron Heintzman is to be immediately unimpressed,” Willamette Week wrote in 2000.
It’s also, in that case, to be fooled. Heintzman is an extremely impressive man.
Behind his quiet demeanor and noticeable stutter is perhaps the most effective president Portland’s transit union has ever had. During his five terms in office from 1988 to 2002, Heintzman negotiated a series of contracts that put TriMet workers near the top of their industry in health benefits and expanded the local’s reach across much of Oregon and Washington. He then rose into the international union leadership, eventually spending a few months as its president before losing its international election in 2010.
Heintzman’s victories also drew enemies. His opponents call him a “dictator” who pulls strings and silences dissent to protect his power inside the union. After Willamette Week reported that Heintzman seemed to have arranged for a union official to forge the signature of a TriMet executive on an IRS document creating a “phony tax shelter,” the charges against Heintzman were dismissed – but it only added to his no-holds-barred reputation.
Which is, Heintzman told us last week, exactly why his longtime constituents in TriMet’s union should want him back on their side.
Why are you running for union president?
Well, I think you look around the country right now – Wisconsin, Ohio – public-sector unions particularly are under attack. It’s pretty similar to the local here in Portland. Since I’ve been back – since October of 2010, I’ve been doing some part-time work for the local and attending arbitrations and some negotiations. And I’m seeing it’s really tough right now.
The thing that was really alarming to me, though, is the relationship the union has with TriMet. I went to work at TriMet in ’82, and I’ve been there under four different managers. We had some difficult times. But for the most part, we were always able to get to a deal. I see the current leadership as the most anti-union in the entire history.
I think the current general manager, Neil McFarlane, is a nice guy, but he’s in the wrong job. he comes from the planning department, capital projects. Probably those jobs he did extremely well. But he’s just not cut out to be GM, and so he’s relying on his senior subordinates. And most of them are extremely anti-union. The prior general managers, at the end of the day they knew that to continue a fight with the union was not in their best interest.
You’re an experienced negotiator.
In the hearing that we just went through, TriMet probably had 15 witnesses on the stand. The union had me. None of those people at TriMet had the history, had the knowledge. And I was able to go back to ’88, the first contract, because I’ve done every one since then. I’m the one that probably wrote the majority of it. I think history is absolutely imperative. Management changes. If your union leadership changes on a regular basis, you lose it all. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people should vote for me. You’ve got history here, you’ve got experience, and I’m proud of it.
You were first president in ’88, right?
Right. I was elected to five terms. And then in August of 2002, I was appointed International vice president, assisting locals in negotiating their collective bargaining agreements. Then in June of 2009, I was appointed executive vice president. I moved back to Washington DC in the No. 2 position at our international union. I stayed in that position until July of 2010 when the international president decided to step down. So I became the international president in July of 2010 and then I lost the election on September 30 of that year.
Would you dispute that the union has a very good contract?
Oh, I would say that it is. TriMet is first to say “They’ve got the best insurance in the entire country.” That’s not true.
But how could it be better?
Well, there’s some programs that don’t even have a $5 copay. But the point that needs to be made is that people who drive bus for 20 or 25 years tend to have lots of medical issues. Back problems, urinary problems. And in fact once they work 20, 25 years and retire, they don’t live that long. So back starting in ’88, our priority was in getting the best benefits for our people. Look at the state employee wages – they got higher percentage increases than we did, because we chose to focus on the health insurance. Because they’re going to need it.
I looked at the compensation of the 25 bus agencies the closest in size to TriMet. In wages, TriMet was a little below average. In health care per worker, it was a little bit above average. The thing that doesn’t measure is the post-employment health care. And that’s one of the things that TriMet’s most remarkable, you know – providing the same deal for retirees after they retire at 55 after 10 years of service. And those are the costs that terrify me as someone who thinks about the future of transit.
I don’t agree completely that they’re as bad off as they claim. I’ve been here a long time. I can remember in ’85, we had to take a 5% wage rollback that we never got back. We didn’t realize until the next contract that seven months later, TriMet management gave themselves a 10% wage increase.
It’s not workers’ fault that TriMet’s in the hole. But the money has to come from somewhere. The operating budget is $300, $400 million, and the annual deficit is $75 million. Even if they could cut the retiree benefits so much that they cut that in half, that would still be three times the size of the fare hikes we’re getting this year.
If you believe that they’re as financially distraught as they claim.
The $75 million, that’s an outside auditor.
If you’re asking me, do I agree that because the taxpayers in the system want to continue the same level of service without the funding, should our people take the fall? No. Absolutely not. Are we willing to try and work with you to try and reduce some of the cost? Yes. But we’re not going to be the scapegoat. If the public is saying to you, we’re not going to give you the money to keep funding the level of service, what should be the next logical step?
I don’t know.
Reduce the service.
You’d rather have transit service reduced than convince taxpayers to increase taxes?
I would say it’s a combo. I’m just saying we’re not willing to take the entire burden.
So you’d say that service should sacrifice, taxpayers should sacrifice and employees should sacrifice?
Rather than the employees shouldering the entire burden.
Well, even management’s proposal will only cut that $75 million by $20 million or something. Even that would only be a partial solution.
And once we get this arbitration settlement, it only goes through November. In a few more months, we’re going to be back bargaining, doing the whole thing all over again.
What’s the best part of being a union president?
Today, I think a bus driver can afford to send their kids to college. Years before that, I don’t think that was true.
What’s the worst part?
Worst part is, I think, if the membership right now is up to 4,300, you have 4,300 individual bosses.
When did you decide you’re going to run?
Jon Hunt had approached me a couple months back.
Did he approach you asking if you were going to?
He approached me saying “I would like you to run.” Because, he said, “It’s not about me, it’s about a solid team.” He realized that we’re in a war.
Did his DUI play into that?
I don’t know. He never brought it up. I personally don’t think it’s as big of a deal as people think. That’s what we’re about, giving people second chances. People make mistakes in life.
Jon also hired you to work as a consultant here when you lost the international election. I’ve heard folks say that these guys are buddies. “Jon saved Ron’s ass when he got fired from the International, and now Ron’s making big bucks as a consultant here, and he’s just going to come in and keep the power structure in place.”
It was Jon’s decision to hire me, but the board approved it, because my cost compared to the attorney’s is a difference of like, maybe a thousand dollars per case to $15,000.
How much is your contract with the union right now?
I work 20 hours a month, and I get paid $50 an hour.
Your opponents describe you as a bully who doesn’t run the operation democratically. Do you have any response?
Am I a hard-ass? Absolutely yes. I don’t believe in nonsense and I don’t believe in wasting time. If somebody has a predictive point, I certainly listen, but if people are going to be talking crap, then I don’t stand for it. Also, there’s a faction that doesn’t like me because one of the toughest things in this job is to tell somebody no. And of course we have grievances filed all the time, probably 50 a week with all properties. And a responsible union officer is to look an employee in the face and say, you know, I understand your concerns, but it’s not a grievance.
I read the Nick Budnick piece from Willamette Week from ’00. Did you have somebody forge former TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh’s signature to a document and make a lot of money?
No. They also filed complaints with the IRS and that has all been resolved. There was no wrongdoing. What they tried to claim was that we forged Tom Walsh’s name. (Union employee) Tom Wallace was the person who signed it.
Wasn’t it on the line that Tom Walsh was supposed to sign?
No. It said “TriMet,” it didn’t say “GM.”
Well, why would Wallace be signing there?
I don’t remember exactly right now what that form was, but it was all legit. If I had done something illegal, don’t you think they would have done something?
Bruce Hansen says you may not be eligible to serve in office because you voluntarily left the service of the union to work at the International.
In our local bylaws, it says that to be eligible, you must be employed.
So you’re saying that you’re eligible to run for union office because you’re working as its contractor?
The elections committee is charged with determining eligibility, and they determined that I’m qualified. If Mr. Hansen still believes that the constitution and the bylaws do not allow me to run, within 10 days after the election, he has the opportunity to file a complaint with the elections commission. They then investigate and make a recommendation, and then the membership votes on it.