As union battles TriMet over benefits, its own leaders battle for control

Bruce Hansen and Ron HeintzmanFour months after an internal election seemed to topple the longtime power structure within TriMet’s workers’ union, the two leading candidates remain at each other’s throats.

The runner-up in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757’s June 15 election said Sunday night that he’s hoping that a series of live votes taking place this week across Oregon and Washington will overturn his recent vote-by-mail election loss and trigger a rematch.

The in-person meetings, which so far have gone unmentioned on the union’s website, will start Monday, Oct. 15, and end Oct. 22, sitting president Bruce Hansen said Sunday. They’re the outcome of months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Hansen and his opponent, former president Ron Heintzman.

Heintzman wants as many votes as possible to come from his core supporters: retirees and workers in units outside Portland. Hansen wants the opposite.

“He has had one of his cronies challenge the election,” Hansen wrote Sunday night, a sneering reference to Heintzman’s network of loyalists.

“For these times, you need tough leaders,” Heintzman said in a phone interview, an equally sneering dismissal of the less-educated Hansen. “While people have good intentions, you know, you would not want a custodian doing brain surgery.”

Next week’s meetings will take place in the far-flung meeting rooms of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757’s many units, which represent 4,400 transit operators, mechanics, dispatchers, transit police, fare inspectors, office workers and retirees from Medford to Walla Walla.

Heintzman’s challenge to Hansen was first reported in August by TriMet blogger Al Margulies.

At issue is whether the June 15 vote-by-mail election was distorted when the union’s international president implied, in a written response to questions from local union election officials, that Heintzman was ineligible for office. If it was, a new election might be necessary.

Hansen beat Heintzman 53 percent to 43 percent in the June election, a seeming repudiation by ATU members of 24 years of leadership by Heintzman and his ally Jon Hunt.

But Heintzman says his enemies in the union’s parent organization deliberately undermined his candidacy during the local race with letters to local union officials. The letters, he said, were then circulated among some union members.

“While we were out campaigning, we would run into a few members who said, ‘Why should we vote for you when the international president has already said that we’ll find you not eligible?’” Heintzman said.

Bob Cummings, a Heintzman supporter, filed a June 25 complaint to the local union that essentially accused Heintzman’s opponents in the local and international union of conspiring against his candidacy during the race. In an email Sunday, Heintzman wrote that international union president Larry Hanley had sent “about six” letters to local union officials that “in our opinion, were written in an attempt to interfer with the local union election.”

The subject of those letters: Whether Heintzman is eligible to serve as president. The ATU’s constitution forbids “members who have voluntarily left the service in which the membership of the local union is engaged” from serving as officers in the local union. Heintzman had resigned his local role in 2002 to work for the international union. He returned to the local union, as a half-time contractor, just before unexpectedly filing to run for president.

Hansen and former Local 757 secretary-treasurer Evette Farra have suggested that Heintzman is ineligible to serve.

“He got hired supposedly May 18, trained May 19 and nominated May 20,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “I don’t believe he was a member in good standing.”

Heintzman said Helen Goche and Cathy Redwine, chair and vice-chair of the local election committee, had written the international union, asking for advice, but only after Farra had approved his declaration of candidacy.

Copies of their correspondence weren’t available Sunday night.

In phone interviews Sunday, Hansen and Heintzman said the local union’s challenge review committee of Ken Richins, David Kay and Tom Ruiz had recommended a vote-by-mail referendum about whether the election should be thrown out, a format that would presumably favor Heintzman’s retiree base.

The union’s full executive committee initially backed that plan, then changed course to the live meetings after learning a mailing would cost an estimated $12,000, Heintzman said.

Both Hansen and Heintzman said they have yet to see written rationale for any executive committee decisions. Hansen said he’d “requested it over four times.”

Whatever happens next week, Hansen said he thinks and hopes members who show up at ATU meetings will vote to uphold the June election.

If the membership told me to go drive a bus tomorrow, I’d go drive a bus,” Hansen said. But he added that both the international union and federal Department of Labor are counter-investigating Heintzman’s latest challenge.

Heintzman, for his part, hopes for a rematch. He said his 23-year-old daughter had asked him why he even wants the ATU presidency, especially in the midst of a massive fight with TriMet over worker benefits.

The local union is probably facing the most difficult time in its really 90-year history,” Heintzman said. “The only thing that’s going to get wages and benefits and working rules from being destroyed or from being set back many years is somebody that’s strong enough, has the demonstrated ability, has the skills and has the support to take ‘em on.”

(Hansen photo by Zachary Kaufman.)

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