(Interview 2 in our three-part series about the race for president of TriMet’s union.)
Bruce Hansen is a bus driver’s bus driver – literally.
As a union official for years, he’s reported to the office during his off time to represent countless operators in disputes large and small with TriMet management. Behind the wheel, Hansen is a model employee himself; named operator of the year in 2007, Hansen has scored TriMet’s performance award for safe and regular driving 14 times during his 20 years with the agency.
If things had gone differently a few years ago, Hansen might be the incumbent. In his last race for the ATU presidency, he lost narrowly to outgoing president Jon Hunt. He mounted this second campaign last year.
Hansen’s problems with the current union leadership are rooted in his work advocating for TriMet employees on the job, and so is his criticism of TriMet management: He once filed a formal complaint against general manager Neil McFarlane, who he said was creating a hostile work environment by disparaging the union in public.
Hansen’s still waiting for a reply from McFarlane. In the meantime, we were happy to let Hansen speak his peace about his candidacy.
Why are you running for union president?
I hate talking about myself. But you know, the bottom line is, when you have members coming up and saying, Bruce, you fought for me, you need to run for this position – and it’s not just one person, it’s numerous people, and you’re hearing about it hundreds of times throughout the day – you know, then you recognize that you may be that person. I didn’t think that I was the right person. I thought we had more qualified people out there. But when you start looking at the people who are self-serving for their own interest, then you have to reevaluate what is best for the entire union.
And when did you first start thinking about becoming active in the union?
Six and a half, seven years ago. I’ve always continued to be involved, but my involvement got more and more. And then when I was elected a union officer from Merlo transportation, I found out the lack of training that we received, the lack of support from our union leadership, and I felt that I could change that.
What was the lack of training?
Well, the first phone call I got was, ‘You have a meeting tomorrow.’ ‘And what was that about?’ ‘Well, we’re not quite sure.’ ‘Well, if you’re not quite sure, then I don’t have a meeting.’ I can’t defend an issue if I don’t know what it’s about.
So this was representing an employee?
And management had been briefed, right?
Of course, and they’re up to date on it. The issue was, were they going to implement a policy. We didn’t have even have all the policies in our hands. So thankfully, (outgoing ATU vice president) Sam Schwartz was able to provide me with a lot of the policies and then show me the resources for to find the policies, so we don’t just rely on what TriMet says. They’re not always true – not to us or to the public. It’s irritating.
What’s an example of the district being untrue to the public?
I think right now they’re crying wolf with the financial status. I compiled a three-year wage increase for management showing where they have taken increase in wages of upwards of a million dollars. They are hiring nonunion members of upwards of $100,000 a year, but yet they’re saying they’re broke.
Well, management will tell you these are very important positions. We need to keep on having the website be accessible, and have people find out when the bus is coming.
If we don’t have a bus fill in that route, how is that important? Since I’ve been here our extra boards have been shortened, we have less drivers, we have less routes.
What is it about serving on TriMet has appealed to you personally?
I like the daily change. I worked the extra board for probably the first nine and a half years, where my job changed every day. Different route, different people on my bus. You know, you’re out there, you’re your own person. You’re dealing with sometimes difficult people, but the majority of the time you’re dealing with good people.
You can’t come in with a bad attitude. Our management – they’re our first influence when we come in. We get something bad in our mailbox – an SIP, which is a service improvement program, that’s not true, then that disrupts my whole attitude out on the bus.
And that happens?
Every day there’s an inaccurate SIP come in on operators. Numerous.
Really? What’s the cause of that?
Lack of investigation. The latest one that I was served with was driving a 57, I pulled in Beaverton at 12:23. The SIP said I left at 12:03 on the 57 and I left a mentally challenged person on the platform. And I’m like, if they rode my bus, it wasn’t, but then I looked at the time, and I don’t even get there until 12:23 and I don’t relieve until 12:45. So I took it back, and he said, well, who is that? And I said, that’s not my job to tell you. And that’s exactly what I told them. I’m not going to do their job for them.
We are held accountable as employees. TriMet management is not held accountable. Not for their spending, not for their lack of investigation, not for numerous things.
Except hopefully by the union and the public.
Milwaukie light rail is the perfect example. How many of the public that we’re interrupting down there don’t want light rail to go through the district that it’s going through? The historic district, and TriMet is going through it anyway. They’re holding a public meeting. Are they listening? Obviously not.
Well, there’s some folks who are very excited about it.
True, but the folks who live in the immediate area that we’re disrupting are not going to be fond of it.
And TriMet is taking money out of the general fund to pay for the whole thing.
Right. Take their taxpaying dollars and use them against them. I mean, that’s my opinion.
So in terms of light rail expansion, you think they should be slowing that down, they should not be doing as much of it, or is it just this line in particular?
I think they need to reevaluate their light rail to see if it’s cost-effective right now in the time that we are, if the expansions are needed or can we warrant putting a new bus out there.
What has the current administration done that you’d want to change?
Battle the media. Put our voice in public. Let the public know our stance. Let them know why we make the wage we make. Why we suffer from high health costs. Why we deserve what we get. There’s not one person that rides our bus that would tell you they would love to do our job. We’re like a 911 call every day. Our adrenaline – we’re always anticipating what’s going to happen. Is that car going to pull out in front of us? Are we going to react?
What about Heintzman, the past president? He’s done an excellent job getting benefits for the union.
You have to agree that. Do we agree on the tactics that he’s used against our members? I don’t.
I’ve been in union meetings where people have been told to “shut the hell up,” “you’re out of order,” “point of order.” If he doesn’t agree with you, he’s going to shut you down. If you don’t let me speak, how do you know where I stand and maybe convince you that your way is not going to be the right way? It’s not a dictatorship, which is the way we have been led in the past. And to me, for Ron to come in and associate himself with Jon – you have to wonder if he condones the behavior that has been done and acted by Jonathan. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for his family. But I don’t condone it.
You don’t condone what behavior of Jon’s in particular?
How does that affect his presidency?
We are out there to represent members 24/7 and he’s driving on a restricted license 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. I’ve been called a drunken sonofabitch driving my bus. I’ve had accusations that we’re operating drunk.
You think that’s because the union president was in the newspaper for the DUI?
There’s no doubt about it. When you’re proven guilty we hold you to a high standard, and the contracts you negotiate have a clause in there for termination with a DUI. Why does he feel that he’s better than everybody else?
You don’t think it’d be a good idea to break up the local union into separate units, as Tom Horton does. But is there a breaking point? Would you want to be the same union that represents Seattle?
First off, do you understand why ATU is spread out to 23 different units?
Ron Heintzman was president of the time. So he negotiated these outlying properties when he started losing the power within TriMet. So he started losing the votes within TriMet, so he went out and negotiated contracts for the smaller properties. So he built his empire to surround him and engulf the larger entity, which was TriMet.
And you view that as deliberate?
That’s pretty smart! That’s pretty ruthless.
No one says Ron’s a dumb man.
Qs & As were edited for brevity. If you’d like, you can read the full transcript of our interview with Bruce Hansen here, and our interview with his opponents Tom Horton and Ron Heintzman. Photo of Hansen by Zachary Kaufman.