Pierce Transit is heading to arbitration with its unionized drivers now that one-on-one contract negotiations have apparently failed. Transit officials have been in talks with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 758 since last May, meeting more than 20 times. Those mediated talks are now going into "interest arbitration" with the Public Employees Relations Commission after work continued to stall, according to an email set to transit employees. "Once it became apparent we were not close with our proposals, we filed for mediation with the Public Employees Relations Commission," the letter from Transit CEO Lynne Griffith reads. "That process involves both parties selecting a neutral arbitrator that will examine the union’s interests as well as management’s interests moving forward to arbitration. The arbitrator will then issue a final decision that will be binding. We don’t expect to be scheduled to meet with the arbitrator for some time." In Washington, interest arbitration is in lieu of the ability to strike for transit employees, just like for police and firefighters, since it is of public interest and safety. The labor dispute comes at a tough time for the agency, following 11 consecutive months of sales tax coming in less than budgeted and a ballot measure set for November.
At issue are wages and benefits. The union, which is affiliated with the AFL/CIO, wants a 1.5 percent wage increase this year and a cost of living increase of between 2 percent and 5 percent in 2013. The actual amount would be based on 90 percent of the Consumer Price Index for the Puget Sound region. The union wants its health care premiums capped at 7 percent for workers and 13 percent for drivers and their families, while transit management want to redesign the benefits plan to lower overall premiums as the agency continues to try to find ways to control costs and cut expenses.
"Our economic forecast is not improving," Griffith wrote. "We have experienced 11 consecutive months of sales tax coming in less than budgeted. Everyone is aware of the Board’s direction to prepare for a ballot measure in November." Pierce Transit CEO Lynne Griffith
Pierce Transit laid off 68 relief drivers and 81 full-time drivers. Of those, 15 relief drivers and 23 full-time drivers have since been recalled to their full-time positions.
Voters will face a decision on a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot this November. The increase is expected to raise $28 million a year, if approved by voters. It would increase annual service hours from 417,000 to 580,000, within a smaller geographic area than before. It would also raise $7 million for new buses within a year.
"We are not unsympathetic to their financial situation," said Don McKnight, president of the 770-member union. "This is a give and take process."
Health care is the main issue, he said, but that is not unusual in contract discussions.
"That is the elephant in the room," he said. "That is the elephant in the room for everyone."
That is a fact both sides can find common ground, the question at hand is how to solve it.
“It is not just tough for us, it is tough for everybody,” Griffith told Tacoma Weekly.
Pierce Transit has seen its health care costs go up between 10 percent and 20 percent annually in recent years and is set to see another 10 percent increase next year, Griffith said. Changes are needed to control those costs and are on the way regardless of the contract talks, with the enactment of President Barack Obama’s Health Care Reform efforts in the years to come.
Playing against the transit agency in controlling those costs is the fact that it has a veteran workforce, averaging about 55 years of age. That means that they are near to top of their pay scales as well as likely to be using more of their health benefits than younger workers.
“This is not uncommon for a public sector agency,” she said.
While the contract talks move into arbitration, a process that could run a year or more, talks outside of that process are continuing as well.
The union has scheduled a contract update meeting for its members on Aug. 16.