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Oregonian, The (Portland, OR) - November 8, 1995
Author: GORDON OLIVER - of the Oregonian Staff
Readability: 10-12 grade level (Lexile: 1200)
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 customer complaints.

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 continue.

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 complained.

Media attention to the case sparked a second investigation, which led to Sullivan's firing two weeks ago. Through his attorney, he has denied all wrongdoing.

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 time.

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 his own.

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 board.

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 right signals.

``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
  • Caption: Color photo TOM WALSH Graphics -- Graph/TRI-MET AT A GLANCE

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