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In Battle Over Pensions, Feds Let Unions Hold Transit Hostage

Labor unions weren’t happy when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Public Employees Pension Reform Act of 2012. The law, which applies to government workers across the state, allows government agencies more flexibility in extending the retirement age, increase employee contribution, and halt the practice of “pension spiking” for new employees. A full summary of the legislation is at the bottom of Brown’s press release from last September.

Brown rides on a BYD electric bus in April. Photo:Wall Street Journal

In the battle over pension reform, the federal government as given transit unions a powerful hostage: federal appropriations to transit agencies. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez decided that the new pension law runs afoul of the 1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act. Perez, and two of California’s more powerful unions, argue the state’s pension laws diminish the collective bargaining rights of unions.

Perez is threatening to withhold federal funds for state transit agencies that follow the state guidelines if and when transit unions object.

The Wall Street Journal argues that Perez is mis-interpreting the act and that Brown and state agencies are operating within the law. California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern agrees.

So either the state changes labor law for transit employees, the federal government backs down and sends the $2 billion in grants that were promised, or transit agencies throughout the state lose out on roughly $2 billion in expected, and budgeted, federal funds.

Potentially withheld funds include both capital and operating funds. Los Angeles Metro is first in-line to lose out on funding. The federal government will decide on a $268 million request on Friday. Next in line is the Orange County Transit Agency. Smaller agencies will be hit hard as well. Sacramento’s regional agency could lost $70 million, including funds needed for a new light rail line. Santa Barbara’s Metropolitan Transit District would have to reduce services by 30% and lay off 50 bus drivers without its federal grant.

Thus far, transit unions in the Bay Area have not formally protested to the Department of Labor over the pension plans despite their ongoing strike. While Streetsblog is certainly not privy to the internal negotiations, it’s hard to imagine that the unions aren’t threatening to do so at the bargaining table.

To make the issue more pressing, Moody’s Investor Services is considering downgrading the credit ratings of Metro and other state transit agencies because of the confusion over whether or not they will receive federal funding. A change in credit rating could cost agencies even more, as Moody’s ratings help determine the interest rate agencies will receive on loans that finance most major expansion projects.

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Judge Expected to Issue Decision Monday in AC Transit Labor Dispute

224103292_274eaea0bb.jpg Photo: Susan Decker
Lawyers for AC Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union squared off in an Oakland courtroom today in the ongoing dispute over a new contract. After two hours of arguments, Superior Court Judge Judith D. Ford indicated she would issue a ruling as early as Monday, but AC Transit attorneys predicted a final agreement might take much longer, and the legal ordeal could potentially drag into early next year.

At issue was the union's request for an injunction to prevent AC Transit from enacting new employment rules while a new contract is under arbitration. Although the union rejected what AC Transit called its best and final offer, AC Transit's Board of Directors went ahead and implemented the offer's terms earlier this month.

Amalgamated Transit Union officials are seeking to restore the terms of the old contract, saying legal precedent prohibits a "unilateral imposition of conditions of employment." AC Transit lawyer Raymond Lynch disagreed, claiming that precedent, Amalgamated Transit Union International v. Donovan, does not apply since it concerned a more extensive change to work rules.

The dispute has caused a significant disruption for the agency's 236,000 riders. Changes to routes and assignments have left passengers and drivers scrambling to stay up-to-date, and AC Transit claims drivers are exacerbating the situation by staging an unauthorized sick-out.

The district has warned that it is considering cutting weekend service altogether as a cost-saving measure, but it will continue this weekend, according to AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson.

"We will continue on with business as it has been for the past week. Hopefully for our riders it’ll mean that they will get service. They may have to show a little more patience but because if the kind of labor strike we’ve had this week and the previous weekend some of the buses might not show up on time," he said.


Muni Charter Measure Supporters Take to the Streets to Collect Signatures

IMG_1793.jpgSupervisor Sean Elsbernd canvasses near West Portal station this morning. Photo: Michael Rhodes

People catching Muni near West Portal station this morning were greeted by an unusual sight: Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, and a team of volunteers were out canvassing the avenue to gather signatures for a ballot measure that would change the way the city sets Muni operator salaries.

Elsbernd, who first introduced the measure late last year only to see it receive an icy reception in a Board of Supervisors committee, said getting it on the ballot through a signature campaign was a daunting task, but so far people are receptive.

"If they give you that two seconds to talk to you about it, they'll sign it," he said. "It's just whether or not they'll give you that two seconds."

After twenty minutes of standing out on West Portal Avenue, Elsbernd said he'd collected about 15 signatures. To get on the November ballot, 70,000 of San Francisco's half-a-million registered voters must sign a petition in support of putting the measure on the ballot.

"We've got a lot of signatures we've got to collect in the next few months," Elsbernd acknowledged.

The measure would remove language from the City Charter that currently sets Muni operator salaries and benefits at the average of the two highest-paying large transit agencies in the country, instead of through a collective bargaining process. The measure's supporters argue that the charter provision has been too costly for Muni and has given management less flexibility to negotiate better work rules.


SF Supervisor Elsbernd Pulls Muni Operator Ballot Amendment

Hearing_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth
In a move that delighted the dozens of MTA bus and light-rail drivers and representatives of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 250 at the Board of Supervisor's Rules Committee Meeting today, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd withdrew a proposed charter amendment that would have removed a provision in the city charter that sets Muni base wages and benefits, on average, to the two highest paying transit systems nationally. The amendment would have required base wages and benefits be set through collective bargaining.

Elsbernd said that in light of his amendment not generating immediate cost reductions to meet the current MTA budget deficit and because the TWU has been engaging with MTA management, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the Board of Supervisors, he moved to withdraw the amendment.

"Recognizing that this charter amendment could present a toxic element to those discussions, I would ask the committee to table this item," said Elsbernd, which drew uproarious applause from the audience in chambers.

TWU President Irwin Lum thanked Elsbernd in his comments, striking a conciliatory tone and asking for the politics to be taken out of the negotiations.

"This is a discussion that should be dealt with in-house between management and labor," said Lum. "We want to emphasize we're not the problem with Muni. We want to be part of the solution to fix the situation and make sure riders and the public are not hurt by these cuts."



Heavy Traffic Expected As Riders Scramble for BART Alternatives

bay_bridge_traffic_1.jpgFlickr photo: schlick33
With BART's operators' union declaring an imminent strike that will shut down the entire system starting this Monday, Bay Area commuters are scrambling to find other options for getting to work, particularly from the East Bay, where BART and the Bay Bridge are the two primary transportation links across the water.

Despite gridlock expected on the roads as hundreds of thousands of BART riders move to other transit operators or their cars, Caltrans doesn't plan to alter its traffic management across the Bay Bridge.

"At this point we're going to operate within our standard traffic management. We're going to adjust metering lights as is necessary," said Caltrans District 4 spokesperson Lauren Wonder. She noted that Caltrans engineers would be out monitoring traffic throughout the day starting on Monday and for the duration of the strike in order to gauge the traffic impacts as they arise. "We are looking at possibly changing hours on HOV lanes, but if you make it too restrictive, you might alienate a portion of the community and make those other mixed flow lanes even more crowded."

While she didn't rule out the possibility of converting a mixed-flow lane into a transit-only lane if deemed appropriate by Caltrans engineers, that option is not expected, said Wonder, in part because AC Transit and other transit operators are running at near-capacity conditions and don't have that many more buses to put into service.

"You have to look at the big picture and if a transit-only lane would result in more overall traffic," she said.



“A Lot of This is Just Theater” Says Source Close to BART Contract Flap

With BART and its unions agreeing on a nine-day extension to contract negotiations, the fear of a strike that would incapacitate the Bay Area's transit networks and gridlock its roads has been temporarily alleviated, though ten days from now the entire region could be in the same predicament if the gap between management and labor is not bridged. What is clear is that the acrimony between those at the bargaining table is intense and, judging from the tenor of public reaction in news reports and polls, it's clear the public has little patience for the drama amid wider economic concerns. 

Both sides have sent a barrage of contradictory press releases, maintain competing websites, and argue that the other is not serious about making the concessions required to drive down a 4-year, $250 million projected deficit, one that will likely only worsen as sales-tax revenue and ridership continue to sag.

Why are they apparently so far apart?

"A lot of this is just theater," asserted a source close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of appearing to bargain in public. The source said that after all the press releases and the contradictory claims, there are really four scenarios that could happen should there still be no contract on July 9th: 

  • Keep negotiating under current contract
"The contract expires and typically what happens is you work under the old contract until a new contract is negotiated," said our source. Hypothetically the unions wouldn't want to work under the old contract because they want a pay increase, but given the economic circumstances currently, working under the old contract might be better than working under a new contract. While the unions might see this as an incentive to forestall the new contract under the existing conditions, BART management would have the opposite incentive: every day the unions are working under the old contract, the costs increase on the deficit.



One Week Left in Contract, BART Management and Labor Trade Barbs

With BART contracts expiring next Tuesday night and regional planning organizations urging Bay Area residents to create a contingency plan for getting to work if there is a strike or labor slowdown, BART management and labor representatives are accusing each other of bad-faith negotiations. Though they are bargaining around the clock and both sides insist they don't want to resort to a lock-out or a strike, rhetoric suggests those options are a real possibility.

"The major sticking points are we need to come to agreement on the large economic issues," said BART Spokesperson Linton Johnson, referring to the $100 million management is seeking in concessions from the five BART unions. "None of the major cost-saving issues have been agreed to."

The unions argue that BART district management only gave them specific details for negotiating the various sections of the contract two weeks before the contract deadline, not on April 1st, as had been done with previous bargaining processes.

"I would say the district wasted the first two and a half months with fuzzy wuzzy lack-of-detail," said Jean Hamilton, President of AFSCME Local 3993. "Only in the last week did they present real details."