Fresh and Objective Thinking at TriMet…Are You Serious?

In a letter to the Union from the labor relations director recently hired by TriMet, he wrote: “Because the General Manager must keep in mind the interests of all TriMet employees, it is inappropriate that he serve as the president of the Unions’ counterparty or primary interface. There will be times when the interests of union and non-union employees are at odds.” Now comes the best! “In those situations, the General Manager must bring objective and fresh thinking to the dispute, unclouded by having advocated for one side or the other.”

Are we talking about TriMet here? First, if the General Manager of TriMet believes that he doesn’t have to work with his counterpart in the Union, no problem. The Union will simply work around and above him so he can be freed up to concentrate on other areas that require his objective and fresh thinking. And what about this notion of objective and fresh thinking?

The only objective and fresh thinking coming out of TriMet in the past year and a half has resulted in labor-management relations between TriMet and the Union hitting its lowest point ever; a protracted contract dispute that resulted in numerous unfair labor practice lawsuits filed against TriMet for violation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement and retaliation against the Union for filing such complaints; TriMet losing its case before the Oregon Employment Relations Board for trying to add on to the laundry list of takeaways from members in its contract offer submitted for arbitration; and if TriMet is found guilty in the contract breach and retaliation charge, that poor management decision could wind up costing taxpayers over 20 million dollars.

These certainly are not accomplishments I would brag about where objective and fresh thinking prevailed. To the contrary. But, perhaps the following is what was meant when the new labor relations director wrote about the general manager’s decisions being unclouded by having advocated for one side or the other.

The recent TriMet influenced editorial in the “Union friendly” The Oregonian calls for many changes, but omits calling for the most important one. The editorial wants the Oregon legislature to repeal the interest arbitration law which includes transit workers. The thought apparently is that transit workers should strike rather then preserve the vital service of public transportation in the state.

The editorial also encouraged changing the make-up of the Governor appointed TriMet Board of Directors. It mentioned the terms of two board positions up for reappointment and suggested the Governor not reappoint either one. The real motive is that TriMet does not want the labor representative on the TriMet Board, Lynn Lehrbach, to be reappointed.

The editorial called for changes to the composition of the Oregon Employment Relations Board, implying that the Board was not employer-friendly enough and as a result, somewhat responsible for TriMet’s problems. And of course, The Oregonian editorial advocates for the change in Union leadership because they are being unreasonable in protecting the wages, benefits and job security of their members. The obvious omission in the editorial was to call for top management at TriMet to be replaced for making irresponsible decisions costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars.

Strike-prohibited law

The law prohibiting transit workers from striking in Oregon was passed in 2007. The legislation parallels the more than one hundred year old position of the Amalgamated Transit Union to settle contract disputes by arbitration. The law was also necessary to prevent the unnecessary interruption of public transportation because of a contract dispute, which is the only means of transportation for many of our citizens.

TriMet blames its current contract dispute with the Union on the law. The law isn’t to blame! TriMet management made poor decisions and violated the law. That is why the dispute has drug on for so many years. Now, in keeping with its newly pledged commitment to advocate for its Union employees, TriMet is contacting key legislators to see if there is any support for repealing the interest arbitration law in the upcoming special session of the Oregon Legislature to begin next month.

TriMet believes that without transit workers covered by the strike-prohibited statute, they could have already forced their significant wage and benefit cuts on active and retired employees, forcing employees to strike; knowing that the prospect of employees striking over the need to support their families would be in TriMet’s favor. That’s the real reason for TriMet’s opposition to the arbitration law.

TriMet Board of Directors

Terms for two seats on the TriMet Board are ending or have ended. The Union has learned that the term of the labor representative member on the board, Lynn Lehrbach, is ending in February and that the Governor does not intend to reappointment him. Instead, we understand the Governor’s office intends on filling the labor spot on the board with a small business owner.

There has always been a labor representative position on the TriMet board, a commitment made by Governor Kitzhaber during his first term as Oregon’s governor. Lynn Lehrbach has been the only real “voice” for labor in comparison to previous representatives serving in that capacity. At a TriMet Board meeting last year during a contentious debate about the labor dispute, the TriMet Board Chair refused to let Lehrbach speak in support of TriMet’s unionized workers.

Knowing that TriMet doesn’t want the labor position on the Board to continue, we suspect that this may be the result of some political maneuvering going on in the Governor’s office. Tom Walsh, former TriMet General Manager is a paid consultant to TriMet and his wife is the current Chief of Staff for the Governor. We hope Kitzhaber is not serious about dumping the labor spot on the TriMet Board because of political influencing, for that would seriously affect the relationship this Union has with the Governor’s office.



Oregon Employment Relations Board

It seems incomprehensible that The Oregonian editorial called on changes to Board members at the Oregon Employment Relations Board (OERB), somehow tying TriMet’s current contract woes to the Board’s composition.

If TriMet had not violated the parties’ collective bargaining agreement and state law, the dispute would not have even landed before OERB. The fact that it did, and because of delays resulting from TriMet’s actions, can hardly be used as condemnation of the OERB. But, what else would we expect from SUCH a “pro-labor” newspaper?

So, if TriMet’s new labor relations director’s characterization means that TriMet has become somewhat kinder and gentler, with objective and fresh thinking that will benefit its unionized employees, then we need to rewind the film on this production because we must be watching the wrong show!




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