Summary: The transit agency's chief denies that improved relations with the union have compromised management's authority
Two years ago, it didn't take much to draw fighting words out of transit union leader Ron Heintzman.
During one dispute with Tri-Met General Manager Tom Walsh over pension
benefits for widows of retired union members, Heintzman ordered picket
signs with the slogan ``Walsh Welches on Widows.'' The squabble was
settled without picketing, but Heintzman kept the sign in his office as
a trophy of the union's tough negotiating style.
For his part, Walsh at one point openly admitted to the
Tri-Met board that he simply didn't know how to get along with the
union, which represents about 1,800 drivers and other employees.
``I'm open to suggestions,'' Walsh plaintively told the board during a meeting early last year.
Those days are gone, at least for now. Disputes that once led to personal attacks now are settled quietly behind the scenes.
As part of the new labor peace, Heintzman last week endorsed a new
employee disciplinary policy for dealing with serious allegations of
wrongdoing. The union also is negotiating to change a 1986 agreement
that at times has blocked Tri-Met from responding effectively to
But the recent uproar over alleged sexual misbehavior by four Tri-Met
drivers has put a spotlight on the union-management relationship.
The key question is whether Tri-Met's management or Local 757 of the
Amalgamated Transit Union holds the real power within the transit
agency. And until that answer becomes clear, embarrassing missteps by
Tri-Met's customer service workers and middle managers probably will
Predictably, Walsh says emphatically that power rests with management.
The notion among some Tri-Met managers that a strong union contract
prevents the agency from disciplining its employees is ``a myth, a
crutch, an excuse that I never want to hear from a Tri-Met manager
again,'' Walsh said recently.
Heintzman takes the same position, claiming that misunderstandings by
some Tri-Met administrators create an illusion of excessive union
clout. But he is quick to spell out the limits of Tri-Met's power under
the contract, and he draws the line in different places than Tri-Met.
The allegations that Tri-Met driver Larry Sullivan had engaged in sex in
September with a woman in the back of a bus highlight the differences
in union and management perspectives.
Tri-Met first investigated Sullivan based on a citizen's complaint and
suspended him for two weeks without pay. Tri-Met then returned Sullivan
to his former route, despite objections from the woman who first
Media attention to the case sparked a second investigation, which led to
Sullivan's firing two weeks ago. Through his attorney, he has denied
Walsh now contends that Tri-Met made a terrible mistake by returning
Sullivan to Line 43 after the first investigation. He said Tri-Met can
place a disciplined driver on a different line, despite the seniority
clause in the contract.
Heintzman disagrees. ``For someone to lose (seniority) rights for the
rest of his life because some women don't want to see them? Come on,''
Heintzman said. ``What if every day he's on a different bus, and
somebody says they don't want to ride his bus? That's just ludicrous.''
The union leader also argues that Tri-Met had no right to launch a
second investigation and then fire Sullivan after it already had
disciplined him once for the alleged misdeed. Heintzman said Sullivan
has appealed the firing.
``There's the issue of double jeopardy,'' Heintzman said. ``Is it legal
under the terms of our collective bargaining agreement to discipline
someone and then turn around a week or two later and discipline them
more severely for the same incident? We say absolutely not.''
Walsh and other Tri-Met leaders hope they can come to clear agreements
with the union on those and other fundamental issues.Employees within
Tri-Met, and others familiar with the agency, think that Walsh has sent
out such strong pro-union signals that few middle managers are likely
to challenge the union in a dispute.
In the past two years, Walsh has settled major issues in ways that are strongly favorable to the union.
He agreed in March 1994 that private bus companies working under
contract with Tri-Met must hire union drivers. They earn less money
than regular Tri-Met drivers, but the union can limit Tri-Met's
expansion of the contracted suburban service.
Three months later, Walsh fired bus maintenance director Gary Brentano,
one of the agency's top union negotiators and a hard-liner in dealing
with the transit union. Walsh said publicly that Brentano's style was
``dramatically different'' from his own.
Word spread quickly that union officials held a party to celebrate
Brentano's departure. Heintzman denies any party but makes no bones
about his dislike of the fired manager
Brentano's supporters were stunned by Walsh's decision. ``The firing of
Gary Brentano sent a chill through all of middle management,'' said
businessman Loren Wyss, who was chairman of the Tri-Met board at the
One week after Brentano's firing, Wyss resigned from the board following
a meeting with then-Gov. Barbara Roberts. Wyss, another hard-liner in
union relations, concluded that Roberts favored Walsh's approach over
A secret memo from Walsh to one of the governor's aides surfaced later
and revealed that Walsh had asked Roberts to remove Wyss from the board
because he was an impediment to improved labor relations.
``Loren has become an anchor,'' Walsh wrote in what amounted to an
ultimatum to resign if Wyss was not removed from the governor-appointed
Wyss had, in fact, become openly critical of Walsh's handling of union matters, and he remains unhappy about Walsh's direction.
``I don't think Walsh wanted to give the agency away to the union. He's
not that doctrinaire to believe he was hired to turn the transit agency
over to the union group,'' said Wyss. ``He thought labor peace would
help him meet ridership goals.''
Current board chairman Phil Bogue supports Walsh's actions to thaw the once-cold union-management relationship.
``Tom's approach with the union is to really make them a true partner,''
he said. ``Some interpret that as pandering to the union, but I don't
look on it that way at all.''
Parts of the labor peace will cost Tri-Met big money.
Walsh and the Tri-Met board had agreed in 1992 to take over the
union-managed medical trust fund, thinking that the fund had assets of
$250,000. But by 1993 it became clear that the claim disputes by ODS
Health Plans could end up costing the fund as much as $500,000. After
questioning some union expenses in 1993, Walsh backed off, and Tri-Met
expects to pay $450,000 to cover the fund's old bills.
And last December, the Tri-Met board and union workers agreed to a
four-year settlement that will give union members pay increases of 3
percent to 5 percent for each of the four years. The agreement will
cost Tri-Met $8.5 million during the life of the contract.
Because the issue was settled before Jan. 1, Tri-Met was able to exempt union members from making a 6 percent contribution into their own pensions for the next decade.
The peace signals, in contrast to the hard-line approach that dominated
Tri-Met before Walsh arrived in 1991, have been unsettling to many
people within the ageny.
Walsh says he wants to find the right balance between unity and
toughness in his message. He hopes that his employees will pick up the
``I will back any action that any employee in this agency takes if they
can say genuinely, `I did this in the interest of good customer
service,' '' he said. ``If they're wrong, I will say, `You and I have
different definitions of good customer serivce.' ''
Gordon Oliver can be reached by phone at 221-8171 or fax 294-4052. Send
mail to 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland 97201, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caption: Color photo
Graphics -- Graph/TRI-MET AT A GLANCE