For those of us who are dismayed at TriMet’s seemingly never-ending service cuts and fare increases, the contract dispute between the transit agency and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 is a bit disconcerting.
I say disconcerting because on the one hand it’s clear TriMet is in a bind financially, what with the recession and the agency’s dependence on volatile, steeply declining payroll taxes. On the other hand, vilifying bus drivers as grasping public employees is hardly appealing. Nor is the notion that cutting benefits, especially a benefit as fundamental as health care, is the only way to financial solvency.
To help me sort all this out, I turned to my old friend Don McIntosh: associate editor of the NW Labor Press and my go-to guy on all things labor union.
Here are a few of his insights:
Driving a bus is a high stress-repetitive motion occupation and bus drivers as a population are extremely unhealthy. “These guys suffer from high levels of obesity, hypertension and heart disease,” Don says.
In short: “Bus drivers have very high utilization rates for health care services.”
What’s the takeaway? “TriMet and the union should put efforts into preventive health. The best thing for these guys would be a half hour a day of paid calisthenics.”
At the same time–incessant carping about the union’s lavish health benefits—a practice favored by the Oregonian editorial board –is misguided.
The problem isn’t that ATU health care benefits are too generous–they are too expensive, says Don. In that context, TriMet and the bus drivers’ union are both scapegoats for much larger problems: inadequate federal investment in public transportation and skyrocketing health care costs.
“Legacy and Providence are building $100 million palaces and doctors are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. We’ve got an out of control medical- industrial complex and TriMet is footing the bill.”
I brook no disagreement with Don. As SEIU Local 49 executive director Ron Ruggiero noted last month, unions should be at the forefront of transit activism, urging employers to fund transit passes for workers and helping to spread the gospel of transit as a clean, green urban transportation solution.
Maybe this isn’t a union-management battle after all. It’s a battle everyone should be fighting–for universal health care and a stable, well-funded bus network that gets all of us where we want to go.