Our union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, shares Michael Ennis's desire to provide the public with the greatest level of service at the lowest cost while providing public employees with fair wages, benefits, and working conditions. But the arguments Ennis puts forth in a recent Crosscut article are based on erroneous salary figures.
An honest evaluation of driver wages paid since Metro was formed in 1974 reveals that wages just barely kept pace with inflation. The Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) floors and ceilings Ennis complains about are, in actuality, budgeting tools to help management to predict future expenses. The Consumer Price Index, published monthly by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, is a common way for employers to determine the actual increase in cost of living. Historically, our COLA is paid at 90 percednt of the actual cost of living increase, causing our Transit Operators and employees in the 114 other classifications covered in our KC/Metro contract, to slowly fall behind in wages. Over the years, the union has negotiated small wage increases at the start of a new contract to keep our represented workers’ wages reflective of actual cost of living increases.
Ennis suggests Transit Operators are making too much money per year, yet the transit audit argues that increasing work hours for part-time Transit Operators and increasing overtime opportunities for full-time Transit Operators will save the county money by utilizing each employee to a greater extent, as opposed to employing more people at the cost of providing additional benefit packages. The union and management are in agreement with this audit finding and are working on solutions at the bargaining table.
From reading Ennis’s article, one might conclude that union and management are locked in a heated battle over wages. In reality, union and management are working together at the bargaining table to find creative solutions to improve efficiencies while maintaining wages, benefits, and working conditions. Our state legislators have made it quite clear that lowering costs are a prerequisite for providing additional and stable funding. To that end, I have assigned two union officers to work directly with Metro’s scheduling section to find every conceivable inefficiency while maintaining the quality transit service for which we are famous.
Some managers believe that increased efficiencies are gained through reduction in recovery time (time between each trip in a Transit Operator’s daily schedule). There is a risk in attempting to squeeze efficiency through reduction in recovery time. Transit Operators use recovery time to get back on schedule when they are forced off schedule by traffic conditions, breakdowns, and emergencies. With little or no recovery time, schedule disruptions tend to snowball.
So for Metro, "adequate recovery time" equates to excellent on-time performance. To the public, adequate recovery time equates to the bus beginning each trip on time and reliably transporting them to work or school in a timely fashion. For the union, adequate recovery time equates to reasonable breaks for Transit Operators, including a chance to use the restroom or eat a snack.
Ennis also takes issue with my reported comment in Mike Lindblom’s September 7, 2010, Seattle Times article suggesting Metro could “cut some of its services and not take away pay.” Ennis incorrectly expands on my thought by stating I’m suggesting “the meteoric growth in salaries is not enough, drivers should be paid more money, and Metro should cut service to pay for it.” I made no such statement, and in fact the union has yet to formalize its wage proposal in the present negotiation.
I do believe Metro could save a lot of money if it weren’t for the 40-40-20 rule of the King County Council, which mandates maintaining inefficient service in areas of King County outside Seattle. Metro does not want to be forced to pay for buses running with light loads, or even empty, to satisfy the whims of politicians. That’s costly inefficiency.
(A caution in using transportation reporter Mike Lindblom’s article for facts, he should know that Lindblom also claimed the average bus driver’s income is $60,806 because he, apparently, divided the total wages by 2,300 drivers instead of 2,800. Some people don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions.)
In another article, Seattle Times' columnist Danny Westneat, in discussing King County police officer wages, evaluates my comment as follows: “I'm in a union, so I understand this is part bluster. You talk tough now to make a better deal later.” Westneat is correct that bluster is part of the negotiation process, but in this case, bluster can be backed up with mandatory binding arbitration should the union and management fail to reach a negotiated settlement. Both union and management will need to evaluate wages in context of the state binding arbitration law, not through misleading and sensationalistic statements in the media.
While it’s true the union would like to see improved efficiencies that help maintain the wages of the workers it represents, and management would like to lower costs through improved efficiencies, in the end both union and management will benefit from working together — and not through the media — to find creative solutions.