My Transit Union Goon Experience

 

Lake Transit is run by a contractor chosen by a three government “Lake Transit Authority.” That contractor then contracts with a labor union who represents the rank and file employees. On July 1 the labor contract was to expire. January 1, 2017 the contractor’s contract was to expire. The bus workers chose me to work with the negotiating committee for the labor contract.

Contractors are not like entrepreneurs. They do not have their own capital at risk. They can pack up and leave by not bidding on the next operations contract and have lost nothing. The buses, yard, equipment, and transit infrastructure are publicly owned capital. This reduces the contractor’s incentive to settle labor issues quickly. A contractor can lowball their contract bid and tell workers a raise in pay or benefits is not in their budget. Strike if you want to. We don’t care. This makes unions look ineffective.

This year is a little different. CalTrans, who has the final word on all matters transit, has put the LTA and the contractor on a strict timeline to create a new operations contract. This is due to the many contract extensions that were granted. The first speed bump date is July 11th. This is when the LTA’s draft Request For Proposals for a new operations contract must be sitting on CalTrans’ desk. To write this draft RFP all current costs must be listed, including labor. If there is a union their contract has to be put into the package but apparently is not binding on the new contractor.

I decided early on in the labor negotiations that I would only contribute my document research from CalTrans, my unique experience of going to all the LTA meetings, and quoting its general manager whenever possible. Just mentioning his name causes contractors to avert their eyes. The Union rep would keep the long formal process chugging along. Other bus workers at the table would pound on specific proposals.

After the third negotiating session it was clear nothing else was coming over from the other side of the table. Moving numbers around the columns and changing wording was not even inching us forward. Up to this point, the “progress” was the Union throwing out things from their original proposal. What was left was a few minor changes in conditions and trying to get a raise in some part of the three year contract.

The contractor was adamant that the money drivers got from the Valley Fire disaster funds was our raise for the rest of the year even though they did not pay any of it. At an earlier LTA meeting I pointed out that this infusion only covered most of the new minimum wage increase of one dollar. New drivers got an increase of 86 cents. So they were still further behind the minimum wage gain. The LTA’s manager, Mark (avert your eyes) Wall thought the difference between the minimum wage and starting driver pay should be two dollars.

So now its Tuesday morning, day 5. The Union committee decides that since the contractor wanted to wrap things up today we would oblige by giving our Best and Final Offer. Unlike three years ago when the drivers got their butts kicked, the contractor is under some pressure from the LTA to meet a deadline because the LTA is under pressure from CalTrans to move on their calendar.

So the contractor and Union committees face off across the table. The Union hasn’t budged since yesterday and says “Hey guys, how about your Best and Final offer so we can take it to our members tonight along with a strike vote.” Predictably, the contractors tensed up and asked for a brief recess. When they came back their fake smiles had vanished. Then they alternated between lecturing us as if we were naughty three year olds and accusing us of violating the National Labor Relations Act, without examples, and seemed to be on their way to charging us with crimes against humanity when we decided to break for another Union paid for lunch.

After lunch more trees had been sacrificed at the copy center. The contractor had made progress in wages that they might never pay because they would not start until after the operations contract had been awarded. Starting drivers would still start at $11.34 an hour till January First. On the First they would get $2.50, maybe. If the current contractor does not bid they won’t pay it. And a new contractor would technically have to agree to sign on to the Union agreement.

During break, the Teamster guy asked us what we thought and if the membership would vote for this contract. He thought that since the present contractor did not seem likely to put in a serious bid for themselves that this was probably the best we could get. I thought most would follow his lead but any drivers likely to quit soon, because of the mandatory six-day weeks caused by the driver shortage, probably would vote against the contract. The rest of our committee voiced concerns that the members were too tired to go out on strike. Lucky for low ball contractors, until we get too tired to drive and quit.

Sure enough, that night the members voiced their disappointment with different shortcomings of our thin work but still voted for the contractor’s meager three year contract offer which may end up back on the table with a new contractor. I wonder if the serfs felt this way – new Lord, same field to plow.

Meanwhile, the relentless march of the CalTrans procurement schedule leading to an operations contract award begins July 11 and ends with an award November 9th. The CalTrans approved RFP is released to potential bidders August 5 but I really need to see the draft that CalTrans sees July 11 so I can pitch a fit if a performance clause is not in it. An operation that is on forced six day work weeks for over a year is not fully staffed. When qualified drivers quit due to burn outs and melt downs, the money spent on training and increasing driver experience levels go down the drain.

What would such a staffing clause look like? I suggested a trigger of a three driver shortage over three months. This would be the indicator of a systemic fault. When both of these conditions exist continuously the contract should require a written explanation from the contractor of why this is an extraordinary glitch, how it is being fixed, and why they should not be fined for non performance. Mark Wall is simultaneously planning route reductions based on a grant shortfall. He doesn’t need the additional headaches from another low ball contract. I will now avert my eyes.

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