Interview with Tom Horton
From Portland Afoot
This interview with Tom Horton, a candidate for president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 in June 2012, was conducted by Michael Andersen on May 25, 2012. See an edited version in our series about the ATU presidential race.
Horton: I intend to stick around here for a long time. I intend to stay in this job and hopefully retire here.
Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen: You're the first person I'm talking to. I don't have my list all hammered out yet. I guess you're the guinea pig.
TH: I'm glad you had the opportunity to look at my website. It's been fun.
PA: How long have you been working on it?
TH: I started just before the first of the year. And my interest in stepping forward and doing the volunteering for this job, this position I guess, started some months before that when I began wondering what was going on with our contract and why our union was so quiet on informing us as to, you know, what was going on and keeping us in the loop. And then one of my opponents announced that he was going to run for leadership, and I checked his website out. And it seemed like a standard kind of a campaign statement.
PA: Who was that?
TH: That was Mr. Hansen, Bruce Hansen. And I watched that website for several months, hoping that this would be the alternative to the status quo. And I was disappointed that it just doesn't change and he doesn't seem to offer the solutions or even – he would disagree that our union has troubles. It obviously has some troubles. But overall, structurally with the union, he would be continuing the establishment. And that's not exactly what I'm looking for. And for years and years, you know, in conversation with my associates, brothers and sisters, people are very discouraged and very upset about the union business and why, you know, it never seems to include everybody and only asks for us to take a vote at the last second. Years and years ago, it would have been approaching nine years ago, when we were encouraged to vote for the existing or the past contract, the announcement was made –
PA: In one day, right?
TH: In one day. You had to go to the hotel to cast your vote. 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 or whatever it was to learn all this while you're in the ballroom, 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 limited exposure to it. Well, this isn't a democracy. This is just a shove-it-down-your-throat.
PA: Well, they've already negotiated the terms with management, right? So they want to make sure they get what they've negotiated or lose credibility with management.
TH: Well, I don't think so. I mean, I think it's more about the disposition that the union leadership wants the existing contract to be approved, and so they set this procedure up to make sure that nobody has an opportunity to question it. Because if we do have the opportunity to question it, then people might ask questions and they might begin to circulate some rationale behind these questions and then not want to vote, not want to approve it. And then that doesn't work for the leadership of the union or the district. And then everyone has to go back to the negotiating table. Well, 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, where we just don't want to be overwhelmed by politics. Drive with our blinders on, figuratively speaking, of course. You got the politics of the district that you're trying to avoid so you can focus on the road. You've got the politics of the union on the upside, so you're trying to avoid that so you can focus on the road. And yet our leadership tends to be this great big horse's patoot that's blocking the way. So we're all kind of stuck in this rut of the established status quo. So, you know, I just think that it's time to change that. I come from a different leadership background. I was a leader in my youth in the Scouting movement, and I was a leader in the church choirs and I started my paratransit career and quickly became a trainer and a road supervisor and a manager. So my leadership experience is different, but I wouldn't say any less worthy or capable of leading this collective toward a happier, healthier future.
PA: Isn't it important to have the expertise specifically in – the most important thing they do is collective bargaining, right? They negotiate that contract, and we can talk about whether they're acting properly in the interest of members when they do so, but if they do so, everybody's shared goal is to get the best deal they can out of management, right? So is it a specialized skill that requires a lot of expertise in the union business?
TH: The international offers training in that sort of thing. Also, our dues go to the provision of an international vice president to come to the local and help us negotiate these difficult contracts, especially for large employers. And we have to remember, right, this is a local union. We're not running for senate here, not running for, you know, the statehouse. It's a local union. And ours in particular has become what I like to call the uber-mega-local. It has become an unwieldy monster, with our numerous 20-some-odd, I think it's 26 now, I'm not entirely sure – it's just almost too many to count – different contracts far and wide 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. So this has gotten to be so big – and there's reason behind this – and yet it's supposed to be a local union. A local labor union where Joe Schmoe can get a basic start on a career for the future, some security, some plan for retirement, maybe raise a family, own his own house, that kind of thing. That's the benefit of having a collective bargaining unit. And yet we currently have this monster that the incumbent leadership has designed to protect its incumbency so that they convince all of our satellite properties or colonies if you will –
PA: That's pointed.
TH: Well, they manage to nurse these smaller properties along so they can secure their votes. And this begins to outnumber our majority, those of us who are in the largest contract, those of us who have the biggest number as a property. So now there's no plurality, there's no majority rules here. So when my brothers and sisters at TriMet want to propose some change to the bylaws for instance, and this doesn't suit the incumbent leadership, then they call in their forces from the other colonies to come to the meetings and outnumber us. And this breeds – when we go for unionwide or rather local-wide elections like we're heading into, we're outnumbered in that a large number of TriMet operators are going to be upset with the current leadership. And yet it's not going to be everyone 100%. So there's going to be some of us who vote for the incumbent – well, we don't have an incumbent now, as you probably understand, but the past president – and a number of us are going to vote for the popular leader, and we're going to be all split up here. But there's going to be a number of votes from the other properties to be able to secure the incumbency for the former president. And so we're up against this kind of monster. If you've seen the old drawing about the term gerrymander –
PA: Yeah, yeah, the salamander.
TH: It looks more like a dragon. Well, that's kind of the situation is here. We're facing this a dragon. A young upstart –
PA: You're really going for those Medford votes, huh?
TH: (laughs) Well, a young upstart leader like myself – well, here's how the thing is with my brothers and sisters at the other properties. I want them to be equally represented. I have no intention of excluding them in any fashion. I want them to be confident in themselves and I have faith in their ability to elect leaders of their own. And they can start their own local ATU. There isn't any reason that I can conceive of that they must depend on leadership from Portland. And yet our incumbency, our former president and incumbent president and the current president have led these people to believe that they can't live without us.
PA: What's the line that they hear? What's the argument in favor of distant properties benefitting from the system?
TH: They tell these folks that labor negotiations are too complicated, they wouldn't understand it, we have the training, we have the experience, and that's what we're here for.
PA: So you could be contracted in?
TH: And that's the thing. I wouldn't think you'd need to be contracted in. If they were independent locals, have their own numbers, that's the only difference that I'm proposing – and it's just one solution I'm proposing – they could still call us up on the phone and say, could you send your experts down to help us? Or can you advise us on whatever? We're facing this action, this information picket or whatever, and we need numbers. We need bodies. Can you help us with that? There isn't any reason why we can't continue to be supportive of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the uber-mega-local. So my thought was – and again I want to say that this is just one suggestion that I'm proposing – and I've never said that my ideas are the only ideas or my ideas are the right ideas. It's just not me. It's not the kind of leadership I offer. I'm a consensus builder. So I'm going to bring some ideas to the table. One of these ideas is to help our brothers and sisters in these other locals spin off, become their own. And the reason behind that is that my local brothers and sisters here at TriMet want our leadership to be focused on our needs, to be focused on this current contract problem that we've had for years now. Going on three years, we've been working on this contract. And we need their attention here at home. We don't want them to be distracted in 26 different directions. We don't want them to be jetting off to Europe and Romania and conducting other business that is not related to our urgent needs right here at home. Our brothers and sisters are being crucified in the press as being the bad guys for trying to establish a you know, for everything. You see it going on more and more. And the union seems to be relatively silent on these things. Our leadership has difficulty returning calls. And I can only speculate that the reason is they're either distracted with other business or that they're in some other way incapacitated.
PA: What do you think is the long-term solution for the contract problem? What's the endgame? How does. it play out? Is it a valid complaint that TriMet has, that health care costs too much?
TH: I think it is a valid complaint, and I think we all agree that the rising cost of healthcare is a problem for not just us but for society in general, for our American society. And this is a widespread thing. Now, I believe that we could put heads together to examine this problem to see if we couldn't find solutions to the current cost of healthcare. I'd like to be at the big round table when that happens, 'cause I've got some ideas about, you know, maybe forming our own health care consortium, or insuring ourselves. TriMet is self-insuring its casualty and loss because no insurance company would insure us otherwise. So they have these huge reserves. Well, we ought to be able to examine solutions like that to be able to cover our health care needs.
PA: Why do you think it would be any cheaper for TriMet to do it themselves than to have an external company?
TH: Well, I only propose that possible solution in line with the current debate about Medicare for all, for existence or the public option is another example. I'm no expert in these fields, of course, but my point is that 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. I want our union to be able to stand up on the rooftop and say, this is what we believe in, this is why we're worth what we're worth, and this is why we're asking for what we're asking, because it's fair. And I think we can convince most people that's why we do what we do. At least, I would make an effort to do that, you know. And that's why I want this to be above – I want to change this culture of secrecy that we currently are being suppressed by.
PA: Is ending a culture of secrecy enough to convince the public that – I'm not sure about the best-in-the-country status that people talk about, but it's certainly one of the best that I've ever heard of in the area. It's in the top tier, right – it's a fantastic health-care policy. $5 copay, zero deductible, zero premium. That might change, obviously, but it would still be a great deal. The retirement with full benefits until you get to Medicare. I mean, you run through that list, and almost everybody in town says "I don't have anywhere close to that." They don't understand how difficult a job a bus driver is, often, or whatever else it is folks do, but even then, I feel like it's still a difficult political issue. Do you think you can go to riders and say, it is worth cutting service so that we can maintain these benefits that are far better than most riders would ever dream of?
TH: We have to be able to explain to the people we serve why we're worth what we're worth. We have to be able to say, we make the job look easy, but there's more to it that you don't see. We need to be able to tell people, have our passengers understand that an operator goes in and signs his name on the dotted line in the morning to take responsibility not only for the district's property, the vehicle, whose replacement value could be nearly half a million dollars, but for an average of 800 souls every day. We're responsible for that – that's a great deal of stress. Stress brings on health issues. Not only that, but 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. You know, these are very good reasons why as a collecive bargaining unit we want to secure good healthcare benefits. Now, some years ago – this is before I came around – I understand part of the negotiation for the contract was the consideration, the compromise, that instead of asking for a contractual pay raise for an extra $1 or $2 an hour for a contract, we realized that our benefits are more important. Our medical benefits. So we will give up that contractual pay raise for a smaller cost-of-living allowance. I forget what it is or was, just a few cents every six months, rather than having an extra $2, $3 an hour every three years. But we did that, we made that compromise. It's a worthy compromise to secure our benefits for the future. Now the district at the time realized that it was appropriate, and signed the agreement. That was an agreement for six years. I don't think they were thinking that far ahead. So evidently we're in this position now where not only is that agreement not sustainable because of the increasing cost of health care, not because bus drivers don't now deserve it any more than they did before, but the whole formula is out of balance, but it's going to continue to get that way the longer we go on without it. We're nine years out of that contract agreement, that compromise that we made. We think that we're quite capable – I am quite capable – of explaining to our brothers and sisters, our human brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors. That we're worth what we're worth, that we work. I want them to understand that our transit workers are shepherds of public safety and servants to the common good. The service that we provide is for everybody. I also want them to understand that we want them to have the same benefit that we do. We want them to have the freedom to organize and form a collective bargaining unit, and to make those compromises that we made with their employers, so that they can agree to only take a few cents every six months for a better medical package, for better insurance. This is the way the democratic process works. Labor unions are democracy in the workplace. And generally speaking, they're part of the local democratic process. So we can make a better case to the people we serve that we're worth what we're worth and more.
PA: And you think you can win that case in the – so if the compromise – you're saying that the healthcare system is out of whack. Let's assume for the sake of argument that we don't have a better solution to our out-of-whack healthcare system in the United States. And let's say that it all has to be, you know, resolved in the world we have. Then, like you say, health care costs is taking up a larger share of compensation than anybody expected to or hoped they would. Does that mean that you acknowledge that the union should be accepting less of the compensation on healthcare than it is right now?
TH: Well, in fact, the union leadership just recently sent all of its members, including me, a ballot to choose between two options for this best final contract offer. That has recently been adjudicated by the official arbitrator. And so the union finally brought us, the membership, in on this contract process at the last moment, the 11th hour. And we were afforded the option to choose between staying the course, you know, staking our claim to what we've already done and being intractable and you know, being immovable – and the other option was to make an offer to compromise in the contribution toward our insurance premiums. And our offer was, well, whatever it was. It was like 1% for the first portion of the contract. It was, by the way, was being predated or back-dated. And none of us understands why that is. We don't understand why any of that has to go back to the 2009 previous contract date. I'd prefer that it would be written in stone for posterity to witness that we did our jobs. We came to work every day and worked in good faith based on the terms of the previous agreement, which included that we worked without going on strike. That we continued work while the negotiations are in process. In good faith, we came to work for going on three years now without a contract. I'd just as soon that be part of history and not be written out of history by back-dating this goofy contract. Well, anyway, I think that it's a reasonable compromise. I think that we have to be in the position to appear not just to the arbitrator but to the public in general that we are willing to negotiate. That we're considering other options, that we're considering other solutions. And as you were asking about the future, about these future negotiations and the increasing cost of health care and whether there is not a permanent solution to these things, 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. We must give due consideration to possible compormises. So now we are in a position where we have offered a compromise. The arbitrator will decide upon that in July, or will let us know in July that that has been decided upon. And this puts us in a better position going into our next negotiations that are scheduled to begin in November. And we can say from our position that we have offered these compromises. Of course, that's given the arbitration comes out in our favor. We can go into the negotiations saying this is what we have compromised, and tell us what else. We can ask the various districts, generally speaking, when we negotiate, whether they think we have to do more compromises with whatever their proposed solutions are and we can consider these things. My point is that at that point, we need to take these proposals from various districts back to the membership and we need to say, okay, this is what they're asking for. This is what the union's executive board, the negotiating team, these are the ideas we have for these offers in compromise. And let's have some discourse on this. Let's include everybody in the conversation. 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. They decide what compromises they will or won't make, and then they make the best final offer for us without our even having contributed.
PA: Hasn't that been successful? Haven't they gotten one of the best contracts in the country by that method? Maybe it's shady. Maybe the ends justify the means.
TH: Well, I don't know about that. The fact that we've had good contracts up to this point is evidence that something is working. But the means by which we arrive at that working thing is not about scaring members into believing that we've got to take this offer, we've got to have it right now, or delaying the process to the point where everybody's so desperate at being hung out on this limb of not being included or informed or anything, and we're so desperate that the first thing we want to jump at is the first vote that's thrown in the water just to get it over with. So yes, it's been successful, but it's been kind of a coerced success.
PA: And that's less desirable than the full collaborative success.
TH: Yes. I would think. That's just my kind of idealistic way of approaching the democratic process.
PA: Last question on the contract stuff and we'll get back to general things, personal stuff. Politics aside, money has to come from somewhere. Just on the retiree benefits alone – which the union's proposal that you guys voted on doesn't do anything to change – $75 million every single year is going away. It's off the books, but it's an implicit deficit that you're racking up every time you get behind the wheel. Every hour, it's another 20 bucks in that $75 million pot. 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 everybody's screwed now, and somebody has to pay the piper.
TH: I don't think it's quite that bad.
PA: Okay, so this year's cuts are $15 million if you count the LIFT cuts as part of the $13 million that they're proposing – $13 million in fare hikes, $2 million in LIFT cuts – that's dwarfed by the $75 million that's piling up every year. We've got a billion dollars of stacked-up obligations for those post-employment. A billion dollars of deficit. It's a billion dollars of obligations that are unfunded completely to meet the goals for future medical of retirees. Maybe this is wrong, but it seems to me that it either has to come from taxpayers, from service or from benefits.
TH: Or from capital improvements.
PA: OK, tell me how that would work.
TH: Well, I can't claim to be an expert on any of this. I'm a bus driver. I collect a paycheck, and I hope to pay my mortgage every month. Which I do, despite some people's claims.
PA: (laughing) I've heard that somewhere.
TH: So the only thing I can say about the current budgetary crisis at TriMet is I want to encourage everyone to do their own homework and not believe everything they read in the newspaper or see on TV. Go to the public website. Look at the information you find in the financial documents. Look at the fiscal year as a whole. I can tell you, because it's public information, that the whole 2013 budget is $1.1 billion. That's 1100 millions. So when this particular district is discussing the difficulty of finding $12 million – 12 millions as opposed to their overall budget of 1100 millions, then we need to be asking more questions about where are the priorities. Because funding keeps coming from the feds from all of their different sources. And I'm only suggesting that maybe we need to say to the Department of Transportation, you know, "Thank you very much for this recent $400 million loan, 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 again." I think maybe they'd entertain that thought, or it might be entertaining to them. Now that's just my opinion, I'm no expert. Let's do our own homework. I'm just saying that so far the information that we have been overwhelmed with is a small piece of the pie. Is a portion of the whole pie. And the operations budget is what they're talking about. The whole pie is $1.1 billion, OK? So we're not getting the whole story. And these questions that you're asking are questions that ought to be asked to the district's management and its board of directors.
PA: And I do, and they say it'll come out of your hide.
TH: Well, I think there's an agenda behind that. It has to do about labor unions. And I – this is pure speculation on my part, but this is the trend that I observe in the state and federal and world politics – and this elitist ruling class has new methods of controlling the masses. And this should not be a surprise to us. Yet we have been lulled into this sense of complacency where it's been particular on labor leaders generally speaking all over the nation, have been resting back with our feet up on the desk and basking in the glory of our laurels and magnitudes. And this has been going on for, what, 70 years. Or even, you want to talk about the great American experience, it's a few hundred years. So we have to remember that the elitist 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 millenia. For a very long time, since the beginning of human history. This is not going to end. And this is reflected here locally in local governments as well as our local union government, and our particular agencies that control our public services. And I want our directing board to these public services to be accountable for these services' success or failure. Now, if the public utility district is losing money and charging its ratepayers continuingly high money for the services it receives, I want their directing boards to answer for that. I want them to be accountable. And as a voter, I want to be able to hold it over their heads. Either fix this problem – here, I'll sit downt at the table with you and we can fix this – but either fix this problem or we're gonna vote somebody else in. Or I will run for your office, ya know? Same thing with the school districts and with our transit districts. Except the board of directors of our transit districts are not elected by the people, they're appointed. I think that needs to change. And if I'm elected to this office, that's going to be one of my top three priorities.
PA: What are the other two?
TH: I want everybody to have equal access to all the information, and equal contribution. I want everyone to have union represention.
PA: As opposed to...?
TH: This gerrymander. The access for all, it's part of the information. And I've invented this crazy idea about opening up our union website to be a much more public-friendly, user-friendly thing. That's part of the information sharing. So members begin to have a vested interest in staying alert to what's going on in union politics. Part of that plan is also about pursuing programs of social uplift, to use Martin Luther King's words. We need to get people interested in union politics – not just because they're important to everybody's direct livelihood, which they are – but the one way to do that is to get people interested in the charitable causes and the book clubs and bake sales and barbershop chorus and all of those good social things that people want to get involved in, that makes them feel good about what their union is doing. We need to go on parades at the Memorial Day – 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 backrooms deals. So that's part of access for all. The second part of my thing is union for everyone. And that's going to represent the gerrymander of the equal representation for the largest group of us. And you know, I've just offered some solutions and my thoguht is that everyone deserves to have their own local. Another one of my union sisters in fact, suggested that we reapportion the executive board representation to be more reflective of the populations they represent in various contract colonies. So that's another solution, a very valid solution. Leadership needs to encourage people to come to the table with their ideas and find the solutions together. The third part of my thing is that – you ready for this? – is to occupy, own and operate our own transit systems. I like to use those alliterative things that people latch on to those things. That is part of changing the local laws to make our respective transit systems be accountable to us, the workers and the people that we serve.
PA: How would that work?
TH: Oregon revised statute 267 – again, here, I'm not expert – I'm not a lawyer and I have never played one on TV. But as I understand it – I have read the statute, and it's a lot of legalese, but if my understanding is correct, there is a provision in the law that allows the appointed nature of the current board of directors to be changed into an elective nature. And the way I see it – which could be wrong, but if we pursue this matter, the possibility exists, doesn't if we do nothing about it – could be as easy as writing that or facilitating that statute to make the various – you know there's seven subdistricts in the TriMet district, just to use TriMet as an example. There are seven board members that represent the seven TriMet subdistricts. Each of those members are currently appointed. We change the few letters in the law that says that they need to be elected directly by the people, and that's simple. There it is. Now we're going to have an election. We're going to make these people accountable for the district's success or failure. And I would think that the voters and the people who have the vested interest in the public transportation option in their respective communities would want to have this public option built into their laws. Remember the transit district, this is just a nebulous line on a map. And so much legalese to support it, that's buried in a file cabinet somewhere in Salem that's collecting dust. The people are the ones who make the system happen, to cause the service to be in effect. Those people can be you and me. Those people can occupy those positions that are provided for in law by being elected. We can all take responsibility for its success and failure, that's the ownership. And operate, which means you and I are taking over. I think if we do that, then we're going to solve a lot of these problems. Specifically the problems where the current leadership likes to drive these wedges, these wedge issues, between our union workers and the people we serve. The high cost of health care isn't our fault. But we're going to take that out on the public, because we can't take it out of the budget, in the $1.1 billion budget, to make up the difference in the operating thing and so we have to cut service and we have to raise fares and we have to blame the union for its benefits. These wedges don't need to be there. If we removed this kind of leadership from the equation and you as a writer and I as a transit employee we sat together and we said, okay, here's my ideas, you say here's your ideas, we put them together, we find out a solution, we can work like this. We can put these solutions together. Maybe it involves our compromise. Maybe we contribute a little bit more in our pensions or our plans or whatever. But what doesn't exist now is that open dialogue. What doesn't exist now is the transparency, the accountability. And that's what I'm hoping to change. That's part of the culture that I'm hoping to change.
PA: I want to talk a little about you personally. What the first experience you had that made you think that there was a problem with transparency, or a need for more openness in the union?
TH: Oh, I can't even remember that far back.
PA: What's an example?
TH: OK, here's an example. Years ago, when I became a member of the union with fixed-route services, I mean this has been 17 years ago or more. The first inclination of a new operator is just do the job right. Don't ding the bus, don't run over anybody's foot. You just want to get to the end of the line without incident. And that goes on like that for a number of years. That's natural. And then you see light on the other side of this blinder. Oh, we're having a contract negotiation. I wonder what that's all about. Well, that's union stuff. Oh. Then you begin to wonder what that's all about – not only the principles involved in organized labor but how it works on the local level, and then for me, I had to reconcile, well, this is what I thought a labor union was about. And yet, I'm not getting included. They're not asking my opinion. I'm paying money, have been for years now, and yet I'm feeling like there's different things going on here now. Well, that's politics. One can dismiss that – "that's politics." And then the blinder goes up again. And over the years, this has spread a kind of very unfortunate, sad complacency, apathy, inaction. And I submit that that is by design to protect the incumbency. So they can continue to make their backroom deals, they can continue to play the cards close to their chest, they can continue to do the under-the-table stuff, they can continue to do what they want to, without being oppressed by the masses. (Laughs.) Without being compelled by the opinions of some bus driver.
PA: From your time working in paratransit, Holladay Park and elsewhere, what's a lesson you learned from that that's most useful to you as an employee now or as a union member?
TH: I wasn't always this liberal, you know. True. I was a member of the Young Republicans in college. I was. (Laughs.) And when I finished college and I had to go to work, I moved home. I lived in Springfield. And I moved home and the cold reality was that I wasn't allowed to move into my bedroom. And instead I was compelled to sleep on the floor of my mother's sewing room.
PA: That was her way of getting you out of the house?
TH: That was the folks' way of making sure that I didn't get too comfortable.
PA: Yeah, that's embarrassing. My parents didn't quite do that to me, but –
TH: I didn't have student loans to pay off, because I was on scholarship. But I did have some credit card debts, a few thousand dollars, that kind of thing, that needed to pay off. I needed to go to work. And I needed to just begin that kind of experience. And up to this point I'd been scholastic and a musician and a performer. I was even a professional as early as 14 when I was just getting money from singing. So I went to work and did a couple of odd jobs here and there. I worked the beet fields and I worked the security beats, and I came across this job driving a paratransit vehicle for LTD's equivalent of their LIFT service. And for the next few years, I really came to understand the value of this public service in people's lives and in my neighbors' lives. And that had a huge impression on me and the value of common interests and public services. And not only – the reason that had such an impression on me is that these people in particular must depend on those services. And the value that they get from it, not just to pick them up and take them somewhere, it isn't that flat, it isn't that simple. But this means freedom for them. This means to get out of their group home, to get out of their nursing home, to get out into the sunshine, have a little rainfall on their face, you know, to get in a vehicle and go for a ride and see what's going on in the neighborhood, see other people, watch the animals in the park, this kind of thing. To get to the places where they need to get to, to interact with the people they want to interact with, to be productive in their sheltered workshops and the like, to get their medicines and their healthcare accomplished. And the freedom to get to and from by using this paratransit service – you could see in the eyes and the heart and soul of these people how valuable this service is to them. And I grew up with a disabled brother, and I knew that these people have a distinct value to me personally. But to see this public service and what it means to them in their lives, that really had an impression on me, made me believe that this kind of thing is worth paying for, is worth our common contribution. Our taxes. And if I go to work and I pay my taxes through my payroll taxes or income taxes, that money goes to valuable services like this. And so that began to cause me to change my politics. And the more I listened to the other side of the argument and the more left-leaning I became and the more involved – not involved, necessarily, but the more astute I became of the common good and the democratic values that the founding fathers were –
PA: What was it that animated you before, that you realized was not as important as you thought when you were a young Republican? I'm assuming you still have whatever principles made you think otherwise when you were younger, but you've somehow integrated them into some other system.
TH: I was kind of a patriotic flag-waver when I was a kid. I was a Boy Scout, so I did all of a "duty to God and country" kind of a thing. And my interest in current affairs was probably heightened more than the average kid my age. And I came from good folks that never disclosed their political leanings. But to watch my folks in debate – we always sat together at happy hour. My folks were the two martinis at 5:30 every night folks. That's it, that's the extent of their alcohol use.
PA: All together?
TH: Us boys, we passed the hors'dourves around with the crackers and cheese and we all sat around and talked about our days and watched the evening news before dinner.
PA: Wow. That is very nuclear.
TH: It was. And my folks always talked about the issues. And my mom would find some story she heard in the news, and say, "Oh Bruce" – my dad – "that is" whatever it is. 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 you'd see this reconciliation. This evolution in their thinking ,where my dad would say, "But you know, you might be right about this and the other." And my mom would say, "Oh, you know, that's true and then there's this to think about too." And their positions would swap back and forth. And then they'd spend the next 10 minutes arguing the other side. And for years and years I asked them who they'd vote for, and they said, you know, that's something you do in the secrecy of the voting booth. And I didn't know for years and years, until I was a very old man (laughs) that my mom ever voted for whoever she voted for. She only told me. My dad never said. But this gave me the kind of perspective of current affairs and political discourse that others didn't have. And in the beginning when I was young and wearing the uniforms and the flag on the shoulder and the patches and I was adding more and more awards, you know the whole thing. That set me up with a certain mindset. And tended to be more conservative, because I guess I wanted to preserve these old-fashioned ideals of our American history. But I fortunately learned a few things along the way and I began to understand the value of progress and the value of our constitutional framework being just that, a framework upon which we, you know, hang our current affairs and our current solutions and we change them, you know, when they become outdated. We need to change them. That's how it evolves. So I've become more progressive. I like to describe myself as a socially progressive liberal and a liberally progressive populist rather than be defined by any one party. (Laughs.) Because I vote on the issues and I vote for the candidates that reflect my views, which is not party-line stuff. I like to think that I'm a little smarter than to just block out one whole half of the ticket and just mark the checkboxes.
PA: You were early in calling for some sort of collaboration with Occupy. What was the plan with that, or can you briefly summarize what your thoughts were on that and how it turned out?
TH: The idea is that we need to have a presence in the community. For so long, we've been sitting in our safe places with our feet up on the desk and we've been isolated from our cabs and we've allowed the politicians to speak for us, or not. And this has ended up in the current public image for our workers. And I believe it's necessary for the union to be actively represented in the community, like I mentioned earlier. Parades, representing in charitable functions. Building coalitions with our community groups like the Occupy movement, or OPAL. This is important for us to get our faces out there. I like to say that the public face of our union sits in the driver's seat. And whether that union, that face, is a happy face or a sad face, is going to dictate to a lot of voters who come in the door, "oh, my guy is angry or grumpy and he's got a frown and he's not nice to me and he makes too much money anyway." Or they're going to see a smile and they're going to see good customer service, they're going to see somebody proud to put on a uniform, they're going to be putting on a good example, setting a good example, being that shepherd of traffic safety, contributing to the common good. And people are going to say, hey, I understand that. And I understand how they're taking risks and they're subject to liabilities and this is what I would want in the way of just compensation, defendable compensation, for that kind of thing. And they're going to be pleased to help us achieve that. And building coalitions is a helpful way to achieve that. You know, we've had a number of these what they call informational pickets. Strikes, for lack of a better word, where a lot of our membership gives a damn and shows up. And they may have, you know, upwards of 50 people at some of these things. And my opinion is that we can do a lot better by drawing upon our resources in the community, our friends and neighbors, people of like mind. We call them up and we say, can you come help us demonstrate? Can you help us make an impression in the public square so we can inform everybody about our side of the story. So when the Boston, I think it was, the Boson Occupy group attnounced their intention to do the thing on the Martin Luther King anniverssary of his favorite speech. In terms of public transit, I thought this was an excellent opportunity for us to get involved in that. And I thought, I was hoping to see 10,000 bodies out in the square, but we got more than the average that come to these kind of union demonstrations and we got some press coverage and we had good speakers. And the most important part was that we were having a good interaction with our supporters in the community.
PA: What's your musical background. Why do you love music?
TH: Oh, boy. Well, I don't actually – let's see. My musical background. I evidently had a natural talent that's more than just the gift of gab. (Laughs.) And this was discovered by the grade-school teachers and sixth-grade plays and sixth-grade holiday concerts and so forth that they used to do back in the olden days. And this became, you know, a fascinating thing for the adults around me. And so, you know, I began to explore more. Music is just part of our growing up. My brother played a trombone, so it was kind of always going to be an option for me to do something like that. I first started in school in grade school, singing. And then later in grade school I started playing brass instruments, the tuba. And I did that through junior high school. I didn't sing in junior high school. But then in my freshman year of junior high school I joined the band. But then a friend from the neighborhood who knew that I sang in grade school asked me if I wanted to sing in a barbershop quartet as freshmen in high school. And our choral director helped facilitate that and sometimes we'd go sing at 5 o'clock in the morning. And it was quite a thing to sing in this barbershop quartet. You can imagine the girls would swoon. And man, it was quite – no other high school seemed to think of that in our area. And it was really unique.
PA: Well, it's hard to find four high-school boys who know what they're doing.
TH: Yeah, yeah. Well, we did, and it was quite impressive and it was a lot of fun. And of course through my junior year I continued to play the tuba, and I continued to get some awards doing that too. I was a state champion tuba player at one point. But I also joined it, you know, that was the point when I joined the choirs, too. Not just to be in the quartet. I can't even remember the name of the goofy choirs we would sing in. But this vocal talent of mine evidently was kind of – couldn't contain it, you know. So it was suggested to my parents that they provide me with private lessons. And so when I was 14 I started taking private lessons outside of school. And right away my teacher started finding me venues in which to perform. And I did some local dinner theater and I began to work with the Eugene Opera. And that set me up for some scholarships for college and I got some – I think tesoral petroleum was the scholarship that payed for my tuition for five years. And so I did that, and I kept singing the local gigs and things even then, and when I graduated and moved up to Portland and was earning a living driving buses, I went to work for the church as a paid soloist and section leader over at Westminster Pres. And I did that for 10 years. I got lots of local gigs, I sang at lots of the college orchestras in the area and lots of weddings and memorial services and the like. But at some point I realized that it was really not going to be a living. And so the more I got to thinking about it, it's like, this was never really my idea to begin with. This is something that the adults around me kinda – and it's not that they forced me to do any of that. I just kind of, I latched on to the adoration and the applause and that's what drew me in that direction. But you know, I guess it was in the late 90s I began to think, I don't know, how can I better use my time? I want to build my own house. I want to do some other things that – you know, like, didn't have to go to rehearsals and performances and church every week – that I could do. And I could just take a step back from this professional music thing for a while. Always reserved the option to go back. I said, maybe someday I'll want to get involved in community theater or sing with the Portland gay men's chorus or go back to church and sing with them for nothing, for free, and I just have never missed it. So in the year 2000, I officially retired from the music business. If you can retire from a business that never really paid you a living. But I just never went back to it. I rarely listened to music. I guess I'm kind of unique in the world. I just don't listen to music. It's just not part of my routine. I don't really miss it becausde it's like, if I ever want to think of music it's right there in my head. I went to college for five years studying music. I've got 900 years of western music built into my brain. It's like my built-in iPod. Especially those pieces of music that I've studied and analyzed in great detail. I can remember every note of every instrument in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's, like, right there. It's just omnipresent. It's like I bring the first thought in my head and the third movement of the symphony in whatever we are at what measure. And it's all right there. It never goes away. That can be a burden sometimes.
PA: That's impressive.
TH: So I don't need to listen to music much any more. And I don't find I need to sing. Sometimes I sing. It's been more of a barometer for my mood. I'll find myself singing on the garage route back to the garage, and I've had a good day. I've realized I've had just a good day, so bring some music out. And other times I'll go for months and months without singing a single note.
PA: Did you build your own house?
TH: I did, yes.
PA: Where is that?
TH: Well, to be clear, you know, these details are everything. I bought into a planned unit development, 88 houses up in the Sifton district just east of Orchards. And it was a deal where I could pick out my own floor plan and I could add all of the bells and whistles and frills that I wanted to. And that was a really awesome experience. And it was kind of an, I don't know what to say, a graduation or a – what do you call it when you get to a point in your life where you – a milestone. It was a milestone for me. My dad did the same thing, he built his own house. And my brother ended up doing the same thing. And that gave me the sense of satisfaction, like I had achieved that milestone. There's a lot of that competition going on in my mind, you know. My dad was an Eagle Scout, and my oldest brother was an Eagle Scout, too.
PA: So was mine, yeah.
TH: Yeah, so you know that compulsion to try and keep up. I have paid my mortgage, by the way. You've heard rumors about this?
PA: I was talking to Al Margulies about this today. I was trying to get the dirt on everybody from him.
TH: Get the dirt on people. Is that what journalists do?
PA: Yeah, it's fucked up. Well, he didn't say it was you. He said there was a rumor that somebody had missed a mortgage or somebody and had some other, like, credit trouble or something like that. I haven't seen this Facebook page, obviously. I can't access it. That's where this stuff goes down, I guess.
TH: Yeah, I've heard that the questions are going around, that some of the other candidates' operatives are trying to stir up a lot of dirt and spin things.
PA: Is there anything you'd like to debunk while you've got a chance?
TH: Well, to debunk this notion that I'm in some kind of financial trouble or that my house is in foreclosure. It's not true. My house is upside down. 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 because of this housing crisis. But I continue to make the payments twice a month, every month. And I have for years – never missed it, no trouble. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know if I'm going to sit in it until the value hopes to begin to come back, or whether I'm going to try to refinance. I may try to refinance or something. It's something to consider. But after the election. (Laughs.)
PA: Anything else you want to add?
TH: No, no. I will say this: There was a time when I had trouble with drugs. And I've not made a secret of this. And it was a time when I had lost my job at the LIFT program and fell into depression. It was complicated by my orientation. And I began to fall into this habit of self-medicating. And so I spent a number of years trying to get that under control. And I started a recovery process – would have been almost 15 years ago. In December it'll have been 15 years. And I've been clean and sober ever since. So I got that figured out. I realized that my career opportunity was more important to me than anything else. And it meant that I had to stay clean and sober. And we had some recent difficulty. I shouldn't say we, I should say our current president has had some recent difficulty with that kind of thing. And my recommendation to him is to make his recovery his top priority. Anything else is a distraction. If you are not going to be healthy and happy with yourself, then you're not going to be any use to your family, and you're not going to be any use to your union brothers and sisters. So I think if this factored into his decision not to run for reelection, I think that was a wise decision. I just hope he continues to make his recovery his top priority, like I did 15 years ago. And I'm proud to say that I'm clean and sober.
PA: That's thoughtful.
TH: So if they're talking about my being a drug addict and a drunk, it ain't true.
PA: Yeah, okay. That's great. I don't know how to handle this – I didn't know you were gay. And I don't know if that should be in the piece or not. It doesn't seem relevant to the union job, but I thought I should ask you if you want to say anything about how it plays into the politics of any of this.
TH: It doesn't. I only want to say that that was part of my confusion and depression back when I elected to escape using drugs. Because people will ask, you know, what made you, y'know, turn to drugs? What kind of habit was it and why did you do it and this kind of thing. And I'm just being honest about it. Because that came a point when I really had to learn how to be honest with myself. And that was the factor in that. That was not the only factor, but that was one of the main things that got me down, things that caused me to have the blues. And being let go from the LIFT job that I thought was going to be a career for me just complicated it all. And a neighbor came up to me – I was delivering newspapers at the time, right after that. So I figured, well, you know, maybe I do a little recreational marijuana at the time. And my neighbor said, well, I don't have any of that, but you can have some of this. And it was crack. And I was hooked like that. For four years. Spent a lot of money on it. And I even had that unfortunate habit, to say the least of it, when I first started driving big buses. And I knew I was going to have a conflict at some point. And I knew that I had to get this resolved. So I started treatment. The union representative at the time told me that was the only reason why you're going to keep your job. Because I'd 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 in that. And they told me I had better not test positive again. And I haven't.
PA: Wow. Congratulations.
TH: Well, this union has been a union of second chances. That's one of the good things about having a labor union, being represented by a labor organization. Is that they will see that you're not overwhelmed by the disciplinary process. That a certain kind of progressive disciplinary process is employed. And fortunately for me, I benefitted from it. And I was able to make that choice and I was able to put that stuff down and make the career my overriding – my health first, but the reason I did that was because I wanted.
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