TriMet and the union representing some 2,700 of its bus drivers, light rail operators and other front-line workers continue to be at odds over a long-term contract.
The public transit agency declared Friday afternoon that the two parties are at an impasse in the labor disagreement that’s stretched on for nearly a year. Declaring an impasse is a formal step in the collective bargaining process that sets the two parties on a path toward formal arbitration.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 represents TriMet’s workers. The group’s three-year contract expired last November, and the parties have been unable to agree to a long-term contract despite 15 negotiating sessions and four mediation sessions.
“TriMet remains open to further mediation with the ATU,” spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said in a statement, adding the agency would still be willing to negotiate in the coming week. “However, our employees, TriMet and taxpayers deserve an orderly and timely resolution of the expired contract.”
The labor dispute has been an undercurrent throughout the pandemic and something the union officials have pointed to as an added stress during an already historically stressful year.
TriMet workers have continued to show up during the COVID-19 pandemic and through historically destructive wildfires, which blanketed the Portland metro area in hazardous smoke in early September.
The two sides appear at odds over wage increases and the fate of a long-existing apprenticeship program. Union officials point to the program as a way to develop talent inside the agency and they lauded it as one of “the best apprenticeships in the country.” TriMet leaders say it is more of an education program that the agency “is not suited to deliver in these changing times” and that it is too costly.
Shirley Block, the local bargaining group’s president, issued a statement saying the union received TriMet’s notice Friday. “We are disappointed that TriMet, who calls their front-line workers ‘heroes,’ did not take those front-line workers’ interests into account at the bargaining table. Their proposal was full of takeaways and offered very little.”
Block said TriMet has put “almost no wage increases” on the table for its members, citing COVID. “We know that our members, who really are heroes, deserve more than what TriMet is offering, and so we are going to keep fighting for it,” she said.
TriMet received a $185 million bailout from the federal government through the CARES Act, but General Manager Doug Kelsey has said the agency would likely need more federal support going forward. Ridership remains significantly below pre-COVID levels.
TriMet said in its statement that the economy is “reeling” from the recession and the union has created a contract roadblock by insisting on step increases for workers as well as 4% pay increases “for a large number of maintenance staff, early retirement and additional compensation for non-work time.”
The impasse declaration means the two parties have one week to formulate final offers. If no agreement is made the parties would move toward arbitration.