(Interview 1 in our three-part series about the race for president of TriMet’s union.)
One of Tom Horton’s opponents, Ron Heintzman, doesn’t even seem to recognize Horton’s name. But Horton, who has been campaigning since January to run the union he’s served for 17 years, is calling for sweeping changes to the local union – reversing its ever-larger expansion around the Northwest and breaking the union into truly local units that he says would be more manageable, effective and responsive to members. He’s also deeply critical of the recent priorities of the U.S. labor movement, warning that organized workers risk losing everything unless they redouble their engagement with their communities.
He’s also an Eagle Scout, a recovering crack addict, and the winner of a full vocal performance scholarship from the University of Texas.
He’s very interesting.
Why are you running for union president?
I began wondering what was going on with our contract and why our union was so quiet on keeping us in the loop. Then one of my opponents – Mr. Hansen – announced that he was going to run for leadership. I watched his website for several months, hoping that this would be the alternative to the status quo. And I was disappointed. Structurally, he would be continuing the establishment. Nine years ago, when we were encouraged to vote for the past contract, you weren’t allowed to take the contract and study it, except for right there in the ballroom where we voted. So you had to go through all these 20-odd pages and you had your ballot in one hand and tried to study what you were agreeing to in the other hand and then cast a vote based on that. This isn’t a democracy.
Well, they want to make sure they get what they’ve already negotiated or lose credibility with management, right?
And then everyone has to go back to the negotiating table. That’s what the union is supposed to be about, as I understand it. You know, I’ve never been a big union guy. I’m just a guy, you know? I’m a bus driver. I come to work, I drive to the end of the line, I collect a paycheck and I go home. Hundreds of us are like that.
Isn’t it important to have expertise in negotiating?
Our dues go to the provision of an international vice president to come to the local and help us negotiate these. We’re not running for senate here – it’s a local union. And ours in particular has become an unwieldy monster, with our 20-some different contracts from Tillamook, Ore., to Walla Walla, Wash., Vancouver, Wash., all the way down to Salem, Eugene and even Medford. This is one huge uber-mega-local union. And to my way of thinking – it’s just my opinion – but if you’ve got to drive more than an hour to get to a union meeting, it ain’t local any more. One of my ideas is to help our brothers and sisters in these other locals spin off, become their own. And the reason is that my brothers and sisters here at TriMet want our leadership to be focused on our needs, on this contract problem that we’ve had for three years now. We need their attention here at home.
What do you think is the long-term solution for the contract problem?
I’m no expert in these fields, of course, but we’ve got to bring ideas together. We’ve got to encourage a culture of openness and communication instead of this under-the-table, backroom-deal kind of “we can’t share our strategy with our members because we don’t want it to get out to the district.” Well, my thought is, if your strategy has to be top-secret, then it ain’t such honorable strategy.
You’ve got a fantastic health-care policy, right? $5 copay, $0 deductible, $0 premium, retirement with full benefits. I mean, you run through that list, and almost everybody in town says “I don’t have anywhere close to that.” Can you go to riders and say, “It is worth cutting service so we can maintain these benefits?”
We have to be able to explain to the people we serve why we’re worth what we’re worth. We make our job look easy, but there’s more to it that you don’t see – a great deal of stress. Stress brings on health issues. We’re out in the elements, we’re exposed to any number of foreign bugs and viruses that may come in the door. We’re exposed to bad and stale air when the equipment gets dirty. We’re exposed to repetitive injury. These are very good reasons why as a collective bargaining unit we want to secure good healthcare benefits rather than having an extra $2, $3 an hour every three years.
Let’s assume for argument that we don’t have a solution to our out-of-whack healthcare system in the United States. Does that mean the union should be accepting less compensation on healthcare?
I think that our position as human beings must always be open to change. We must always be welcoming other people’s ideas and input. The existing status quo way of doing business, union business, has been that all of that is left to the leadership. They keep all of that from us. They make the decisions.
Haven’t they gotten one of the best contracts in the country by that method? Maybe the ends justify the means.
Yes, it’s been successful, but it’s been kind of a coerced success.
And that’s less desirable?
That’s just my kind of idealistic way of approaching the democratic process.
On the future medical benefits of retirees alone – which the union’s proposal that you guys voted on doesn’t do anything to change – TriMet’s racking up another $75 million every year. Every hour you get behind the wheel, it’s another 20 bucks in that pot, unfunded. And nobody’s paying for it, there’s no plan to do so. TriMet hasn’t been saving money. It’s a failure on management’s part, but the result is that we’re all screwed and somebody has to pay the piper.
I don’t think it’s quite that bad.
Well, this year’s cuts are $15 million if you count LIFT. That’s dwarfed by the $75 million that’s piling up every year. Maybe this is wrong, but it seems to me that it either has to come from taxpayers, from transit service or from worker benefits.
Or from capital improvements. Maybe we need to say to the Department of Transportation, you know, “Thank you very much for this $400 million, but we’re having a little difficulty getting our operations budget in line, and perhaps you could just loan us $12 million in order to get that balanced.” These are questions that ought to be asked to the district’s management and its board.
I do, and they say it’ll come out of your hide.
Well, I think there’s an agenda behind that. This is the trend in the state and federal and world politics – this elitist ruling class has new methods of controlling the masses. Labor leaders all over the nation have been resting back with our feet up on the desk for, what, 70 years? We have to remember that the ruling class has been pulling these tricks on us, the masses, these poor schlubs who are doing the work, who are busting our butts to get the jobs done, to make them profitable. This has been going on for a very long time, since the beginning of human history. This is not going to end. And this is reflected here in local governments as well as our local union government. We need to get people interested in union politics – pursuing programs of social uplift, to use Martin Luther King’s words. To get people interested in charitable causes and book clubs and bake sales and barbershop chorus, good social things that people want to get involved in, that makes them feel good about what their union is doing. Why aren’t we having a float in the Memorial Day parade? We need to do that so we’re present in the community and that our members feel like the union itself does more than just these cigar-smoke-filled back-rooms deals.
What’s a lesson you learned from your time working in paratransit at Holladay Park and elsewhere that’s most useful to you now?
I wasn’t always this liberal, you know. I was a member of the Young Republicans in college. (Laughs.) I came across this job driving a paratransit vehicle for LTD‘s equivalent of LIFT. And for the next few years, I really came to understand the value of this public service in my neighbors’ lives. This means freedom for them, to get to the places where they need to get to, to interact with the people they want to interact with.
What was it that animated you when you were a young Republican?
I was kind of a patriotic flag-waver. I was a Boy Scout, so I did a “duty to God and country” kind of a thing. I came from good folks – we always sat together at happy hour. My folks were two martinis at 5:30 every night. Us boys, we passed around crackers and cheese and talked about our days and watched the evening news before dinner.
Wow. That’s so nuclear.
It was. My mom would find some story she heard in the news, and then my dad would say, “But on the other hand you have to think about it in this way.” And then they’d go on like that defending their points of view for five or 10 minutes. And then their positions would swap, and then they’d spend the next 10 minutes arguing the other side. For years and years I asked them who they’d vote for. They said that’s something you do in the secrecy of the voting booth.
I’ve been asking around to get dirt on candidates. Is there anything you’d like to debunk while you’ve got a chance?
Well, this notion that I’m in some kind of financial trouble or that my house is in foreclosure. It’s not true. I’ve lost $91,000 in equity in my house and my mortgage is now upside-down, so I’m in the same boat that a lot of people are in. But I continue to make the payments twice a month – never missed it, no trouble. I may try to refinance or something.
There was a time when I had trouble with drugs. I’ve not made a secret of this. I had lost my job at the LIFT program and fell into depression. It was complicated by my orientation. I figured, well, maybe I do a little recreational marijuana. And my neighbor said, “Well, I don’t have any of that, but you can have some of this.” It was crack. And I was hooked like that. (Snaps fingers.) For four years. Spent a lot of money on it. And I even had that when I first started driving big buses. I knew I was going to have a conflict at some point, so I started treatment. I had a fender-bender, and at the time that was enough to qualify for a drug test. And I was going to test dirty. But I was able to say “I am currently receiving treatment.” And when I was invited into the boss’s office to sign a last-chance agreement, they told me that was my saving grace. And they told me I had better not test positive again. And I haven’t.
In December it’ll have been 15 years I’ve been clean and sober. So I got that figured out. I realized that my career was more important to me than anything else. Our current president has had some recent difficulty with that kind of thing. I just hope he continues to make his recovery his top priority, like I did 15 years ago.