Unhappiness on the Labor Front in Metro Land (Updated, 2/16)

Dec. 12, 2011 was the day the Federal Transit Administration released its Title VI compliance review of Metro. Another important milestone for Metro happened that same day but in contrast received zero media coverage: the bus and rail operators ratified a new 3 year contract. The next step is for the agreement to go before the Metro Board for a final vote before the collective bargaining agreement can go into effect.

The press release by the United Transportation Union (which represents Metro’s bus and rail operatoers) linked to above by the way glosses over a few key facts about this contract:

The first attempt to have a contract vote was with a mass meeting held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The rank and file were so disgruntled at what they perceived as sub-standard sweetners (salary increases, bonuses) in the proposed agreement that they began catcalling and taunting the union leaders assembled on the stage. The membership then voted down that contract, and forced the Union to seek Metro’s agreement to augment the bonus and incentive provisions to help overcome the resistance to ratification. Even then the union leadership blanched at having another mass meeting and instead held the vote through the mail. And while the revised version was ratified by a margin of three to one only about a quarter of the membership even bothered to vote.

This is somewhat surprising because the UTU locals for Metro’s operators have a reputation of being formidable, even in an era where union clout overall has waned. When it went on strike in 2000 the UTU called a rally to give pushback against what was perceived as a antagonist majority of the then Metro Board. This resulted in what the L.A. Times reported was a turnout of some 2,000 UTU members and sympathizers (including a large contingent from the Bus Riders Union) filling Patsaouras Plaza to hear a large number of local politicians express support. I’ve found online video and photos of this event.

It is a sign of the extent of these hard economic times when even a union like the UTU that is used to consistently delivering the goods when contract renewal time comes around finds itself currently falling far shorty of its past glories. And facing a unhappy membership as a consequence.

I have been unable to find any of the past UTU contracts on the Metro website (or even the Board archives database). But thankfully the 2003 UTU Collective Bargain Agreement between Metro and the UTU has been posted by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. An unofficial website has posted summaries of the rejected and enacted contract proposals.

Additionally the rank and file are upset at the suspension of the shakeup as part of the service change suspension. As I have explained previously, the shake-up is the twice a year process by which operators bid on driving slots which are awarded based on seniority. The suspension especially disgruntled the higher seniority drivers who had expected to start in mid-December working the new bus runs they had won. Latest word is the December 2011 Service Changes and the shake-up are to be implemented in March per the Director’s Report presented at this month’s Metro South Bay Cities Service Council meeting (see p.21).

Most of the Metro rank and file have no knowledge of such arcania as Title VI or the role the Metro Board plays in setting policy (and negotiating contracts), so the employees fall back on blaming the CEO as the easiest target to vent at. This expressed itself in a rumor that started to circulate around Metro that Art Leahy had made comments at a gathering of newly hired bus operations supervisors that he is unlikely to have his contract renewed by the Board and that his days are numbered. This was never more than a vague “a friend of a friend heard” sort of rumor, born out of the frustration by some employees to blame someone for all the things they are unhappy about.

I’ve heard confirmation that Leahy has declared these rumors “ridiculous”. Also that his contract has well over a year left on it, he has no intention of leaving, and the Board has given him no indication that they want him to. Which isn’t surprising because like a lot of large organizations Metro is often rife with rumors, only some of which turn out to be true.

Two side-lights on the situation: the newspaper of the local outpost of the International Communist Workers’ Party Red Flag regularly publishes articles denouncing both Metro and the UTU in a seeming campaign to recruit Metro operations employees to join the party; I understand issues of Red Flag have been handed out at bus yards and evidently some operators have even attended Communist meetings. But I am extremely doubtful about the Party’s claims that a growing number of Metro’s operators “see us and communism as a viable alternative to these traitors and capitalism”.

Secondly while the UTU have ratified a new agreement the Amalgamated Transit Union representing Metro’s mechanics and service attendants is still negotiating with the agency. But I suspect in the end they will cut a deal. More than one Metro driver has told me whatever the flaws of the new contract they are glad at least a strike was avoided. After multiple strikes in 1994, 2000 and 2003 the rank and file have been leery of engaging in walkouts if by any reasonable means they can be avoided. A lot of folks took a heavy hit in the pocketbook during those prolonged strikes which are memories many of the seasoned drivers still remember (and share stories of with their younger brethren) more than a decade later.

So while not happy with the contract the rank and file are soldiering on, and probably tensions will ease a bit when the shake-up finally occurs.

Matthew Barrett of Metro’s Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library kindly brought to my attention this link to access the currently in force contracts Metro has with the various unions representing its employees. Also he let me know about the website for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 3634 representing Metro’s bus and rail operations supervisors.

  • Davistrain

    This item points up another (if minor) reason why most people prefer to drive their cars for local travel.  When you drive yourself, you don’t have to worry about transit drivers going on strike.  I remember in 2003, only a few weeks after the Gold Line opened, one of the Metro unions walked out, and the newly opened railway gathered rust.  It took a long time for passenger loadings to recover.

  • Drivers faced longer commutes on the freeway during the strike. 

    http://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/transa/v40y2006i10p903-917.html 

    Strikes are a real concern but they are rare. It would be unwise to put much weight on the prospect of a strike. 

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