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Bruce Hansen, a longtime TriMet bus driver and past union officer, narrowly won the union’s presidency over Ron Heintzman, the union’s leader from 1988 to 2002, according to election results posted on the ATU Local 757 website Friday. Heintzman has been an ally of outgoing two-term president Jon Hunt, so Hansen’s victory puts a new, largely untested face at the front of the union as it heads into an escalating battle with TriMet management over retiree benefits.
Management says TriMet retirees’ medical benefits must be cut – medical care is currently free for life to anyone who is at least 55 and has worked at least 10 years in TriMet’s unit of the union – or the agency faces disaster.
It’s a generational shift for the 4,215-member transit workers’ union, which is headquartered in Portland and represents units across the Northwest, from Walla Walla to Medford. Heintzman, who as recently as 2010 served as president of ATU’s international union, had been endorsed by much of the union’s establishment: its retiree chapter, most TriMet executive board members and by the executive boards of the union’s units with Lane Transit, CHERRIOTS and C-Tran.
In an interview, Heintzman said he accepted the results.
“You know, that’s politics,” said Heintzman, who warned during his campaign that Hansen’s relative inexperience at the bargaining table could cost the union during negotiations with TriMet.
On separate ballot lines, Hunt and Mary Longoria, who had run as a team with Heintzman for vice president and Secretary-Treasurer, respectively, edged out victories over strong opposition.
Promises from Hansen
Portland Afoot interviewed Hansen about his candidacy last month. He called for the end of what he called “a dictatorship” within the union by the Hunt-Heintzman faction and louder advocacy for workers in the media, in an effort to protect what he acknowledged was an excellent labor contract:
“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?”
Hansen also said he thinks TriMet managers are “crying wolf” over union benefits, citing as evidence continued hiring of and raises for nonunion employees, some of whom make more than $100,000 a year.
Asked what else he would change in the union, Hansen said:
“Understanding the membership’s needs by regular property visits, getting out there, understanding what they’re going through, why our buses are dirty, why we don’t have enough buses in service.”
Hansen also promised that his presidency would take a $20,000 pay cut, a significant sum for a union that burned through several hundred thousands of dollars from its cash reserves last year. In 2011, federal records show, Hunt took home $108,434 in salary and another $22,105 in disbursements for official business. (It’d still be a raise for Hansen, whose salary was $63,499 in 2009, according to TriMet records.)
Concerns from Hansen’s opponents
“In the hearing that we just went through, TriMet, they 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.”
Another Hansen opponent, Tom Horton, said Hansen didn’t seem to be offering a materially different set of policies from Hunt, the outgoing president, or Heintzman, the longtime past president.
Horton, who called for the union to break into smaller local units that he thought could win public support by engaging more closely with their communities, was clobbered in Friday’s election, finishing with 3 percent of the vote.
Horton said the loss wasn’t due to his positions but to his late start in the race, a few months ago.
“President-Elect Hansen won his narrow victory because of the positions he and I share about the established incumbency created by Former President Heintzman,” Horton wrote Friday night. “Since February 14th, I was able to raise a few hundred dollars and still fewer volunteers. My campaign simply ran out of funds.”
Al Margulies, a retired operator who supported Hansen and blogs about union issues, said Friday that Horton “would have made a good president” but couldn’t win because he wasn’t part of the union network. “It’s like a third-party candidate in a presidential election They’ll drag you through the mud and it doesn’t do anything.”
Margulies said Hansen was “part of the network,” but expected him to use power differently than Hunt or Heintzman had.
“This control has been in the hands of these people for quite a long time,” Margulies said. “I hope he’s going to open up things and stop keeping everything so secret. They operate like TriMet, really.”
Hansen: not “one bloody nickel” of concession without more facts
In an interview Friday night, Hansen dismissed any suggestion that he might struggle to keep up with TriMet managers in the negotiation process, adding he doesn’t think the union should sacrifice any benefits until managers have explained “increased wages that they have continued to take throughout.”
“I’m not willing to concede anything until I see the facts,” Hansen said, citing his own research that he said showed more than $1,000,000 in increased management compensation. “I’m not willing to give them one bloody nickel.”
TriMet’s 2013 budget shows that most individual managers’ salaries have been frozen since 2009, and some positions that have vacated have been filled by people at lower salaries. However, the agency has also some created new management positions. In all, the budgets show, TriMet’s back-office costs per boarding-ride fell 33 percent from 2011 to 2012. Its operations and capital projects cost per boarding-ride fell 11 percent. (These figures don’t include rail construction or planning, which are largely paid by outside grants, or retiree medical benefits, which TriMet managers say is the central issue in negotiations.)
Hansen also said he looks forward to sharing the union office with Hunt and Longoria, though they opposed his candidacy.
“I’ve tried to keep my personal and professional life separate,” Hansen said. “I think I’ve been successful.”
Dan Martin, another longtime TriMet bus operator who said he’d devoted five vacation days to campaigning for Hansen in the election, said Friday that he has deep faith in Hansen’s knowledge and personality.
“I know he has a heart,” Martin said. “He’s very compassionate, and it shows when he talks. … He doesn’t ever lie to anyone. ‘You never walk away from him going, gosh, did I just buy a used car?’
Martin, too, hoped that Hansen, Hunt and Longoria would be able to work smoothly.
“I think they could be a strong team if they’re all willing to work together,” Martin said. “I think we’re going to turn this boat around.”
(Hansen photo by Zachary Kaufman.)