Actors in Bus-A-Geddon have every incentive to let Sun Tran strike happen, again | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Actors in Bus-A-Geddon have every incentive to let Sun Tran strike happen, again

Tucson may pay price for failing to learn from 'crippling' 2015 walkout

Tucson has a monsoon season every year. I remember how every year a Tucson Citizen editor would wander through the cube farm that was the city desk looking for a reporter who didn't seem too busy.

"Could you knock out a 40-inch (big) monsoon package with two side bars? You have until tomorrow."

A lack of editorial planning seemed to inevitably result in a reporter's emergency, which is one of the reasons I get fascinated by how the Tucson City Council seems caught off guard by a Sun Tran strike. Every time.

The City Council is set next week to vote on a $1.4 billion preliminary budget and there's no new money in it for Sun Tran's contractor to provide the service. 

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild described the 2015 bus strike that lasted 40 days as "crippling the city." Never again. We heard. Time for changes, we were promised.

Then ... shiny things happened elsewhere.

The strike got settled with a two-year contract set to expire on July 31, and the parties aren't talking much about if they're even talking. If past is prologue, talks over a new transit deal are going to get ugly. Will the city move to forestall yet another bus strike?

Between 1997 and 2015, the ends of Sun Tran labor contracts birthed four strikes. Twice workers and management negotiated beyond the contract with the prospects of a strike dangling over the city's head like it were a Greek lackey who pissed off the wrong king.

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I talked to City Manager Mike Ortega and asked if this time they have any hope of ending the cycle and I got the same old jazz hands. Golly, no. We have no say in that. That's between the union and the contractor.

On the other hand, he's sneakier than that. In his budget proposal, he has promised a tighter relationship with the Professional Transit Management, which operates the city bus services.

"Staff and I will be reviewing all business services provided under our existing contract and look for ways to more closely partner with the contractor to provide public relations/marketing, administrative support such as payroll, customer service, and any other business functions currently provided by the contractor, the city may be able to provide."

So maybe he's being slick and preparing to back out expenses based on how negotiations are going. Or maybe not.

Here's what's clear. When it comes to the city's transit service, Ortega and the Council are the only actors without something to gain by playing the strike game. For legal and political reasons, they have proven unreliable at heading off the union-management collision that scatters its debris all over 60,000 daily riders.

On Aug. 1, the contract expires again. Two years after protracted strike lit the City Council on fire and had them promising “never again,” it's fascinating to see that city leaders have done absolutely nothing to stave off another go.

All incentive lead toward a cycle of crisis as city policymakers hide behind impotence. No wonder Tucson plays the Sun Tran game this way.

The prospects of a strike are being driven down the road by incentives that invite strikes. You just gotta understand the motivations that inform the actors. Neither representatives of Sun Tran management nor the Teamsters have been at all forthcoming in response to's queries lately, but we can give you the lay of the land regardless.

The union label

Teamsters Local 104 represent the drivers and mechanics. They have the strike card to play and dig playing it.

A bit chunk of Tucson's mass transit budget comes via the U.S. Treasury's account in the New York Federal Reserve Bank. With that money comes a caveat that recipients must protect the union's right to strike.

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The Tucson City Charter prevents workers from striking, so the city farms the program out to a third party the union can strike against.

So Local 104 holds a card that other public employee unions in town do not. What? They aren't supposed to use it? What business wouldn't? What political leader wouldn't? Teamsters negotiator Andy Marshall used it over and over because it got his people a bigger, better deal. He recently retired, but the union's now got two business agents stepping in to fill his shoes and represent Sun Tran workers.

On the other hand, the Teamsters have a perception problem. Like most low-wage regions, Tucson and Arizona are skeptical of unions. My read of the landscape was that most city voters didn't exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with people seeking a higher wage and better working conditions.

That's just reality and one that limits the Teamsters ability to play too rough. The other reality working against Sun Tran is that bus drivers make more than the median Tucson wage. So the typical worker would be asked to support a bus driver making more than them.

Still, the Teamsters have an incentive to play the game of brinksmanship, and boy do they have a willing partner.

Professional Transit Management (or something like it)

Professional Transit Management has a history of allowing strikes to happen, to pressure financially strapped picket-line walkers back on the job on the company's terms after their feet get tired and their bank accounts get tapped.

The city hires this Cincinnati-based firm to run Sun Tran. Riders and the City Council give their money to PTM and the company then operates like a business and has the final say on the union contract. Sun Tran's employees work for PTM and not the city. That's the whole point. It's why they get to strike.

PTM is owned by the Transdev North America, which has more than 200 contracts to run transit systems across the country. Transdev North America is a part of plain-old Transdev, based in Paris. French government-backed companies Caisse des Depots et Consignations and Veiolia Environmental own Trransdev on a 70-30 split respectively.

The good news is that PTM knows how to run transit. They operate subways, buses and light rail systems all over the world and employ 80,000 workers.

Transdev North America contracts to run 200 transit systems across the U.S. and Canada. It operates in Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Miami and Nassau County, N.Y., among others. And where those client communities get federal subsidies, those employees also have the right to strike.

So, PTM sitting down with the Teamsters here is PTM sitting down with Teamsters in Miami, Denver, Las Vegas and Long Island. If Sun Tran's union scores a victory in Tucson, the message will be sent in out to 200 other transit systems that the company can be had.

They will also get that message in Paris. A good deal here is an opportunity nationally.

When management sits down with labor this summer somewhere in Tucson, what's best for Tucson will be secondary to what's best for – ultimately – the French government. That's assuming management sits down at all.

We knew this two years ago, when Professional Transit Management offered a single “firm and final” offer the union rejected and then refused to negotiate for weeks.

Now, what I've learned is just how much this pissed off the Tucson City Council and City Manager Mike Ortega. The Council felt lied to and were eager to make a change and then they got distracted.

Council of inevitability

So if the Teamsters like to threaten strike and management are more than happy to take them up on it, the city is left to stop it. And the Council likes to say it is powerless to intervene. Legally that's true. The Council never takes the lead out of fear of interfering with a contract they aren't directly involved in executing (and aren't legally supposed to have any say in).

In contracting with a private provider, the city is technically barred from interfering with the talks. Frankly, it's a nice political out for the City Council who don't want to offend their union buddies or seem too in their pocket.

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On the other hand, Council members almost always get drawn in to provide some extra funds to settle strikes when strikes happen. Head-banging leadership only arrives at the end of the process because all city services are governed by city politics.

Tucson taxpayers subsidize Sun Tran to the tune of $44 million per year. That's not crazy. Every transit system in the U.S. gets subsidized and the local service's take at the farebox is in line with other mass transit programs. On the other hand, that subsidy gets the city involved whether it likes to or not.

The city isn't going to stop the subsidy. It can't. The disruption to business and on-the-edge populations would be too great. If suddenly a good chunk of Tucson's work force were limited to jobs they could walk to, it would cause chaos in the labor market. Businesses would also lose customers and emergency services would suddenly be tasked with taking grandma to the hospital because she can't get to the doctor.

Taxpayers saw the effect of a dissolved transit system back in 2015 and political reality pressured the city to get involved.

I bounced all this off Ortega and he kept saying "yeah, yeah, that's it." I hope he's got something up his sleeve.

One reason the strike went on as long as it did, I'm convinced, is that Ortega was new on the job and was still working his way up the learning curve. The moment the Council told him to stick his nose into the standoff, the strike ended.

He's had two years to consolidate his position but that's a lot of hope to put on one guy.

Ortega may have a tactical plan to work the game but the Council has done little to change the game itself. It's inevitable that when a strike happens, the Council and manaager are left to resolve it one way or another.

Countdown to Bus-A-Geddon

Unfortunately, the Council only seems to conclude their involvement is necessary at the end of the crisis cycle and not at the beginning.

They need to figure out a new game to end the cycle otherwise their lack of planning becomes Tucson's problem.

One solution discussed in 2015 would be setting up an independent nonprofit contractor the city could hire to run the bus system. That would leave the local imperatives to govern local issues. Tucson would then know when a line is being held, it's being held for reasons that are somehow tied to Tucson and not next week's contract deadline in Las Vegas.

The second piece of the puzzle would be to handle the Sun Tran contract during the budget process. I've had pushback on this idea and renewing the contract in April would be hard when both sides want to take the talks up to the July 31 deadline (or beyond). Maybe the budget fix would be easier if just the union wanted to push it. Frankly, Marshall told me two years ago he'd be happy to hash out the contract during the budget process — but that doesn't mean the Teamsters would be limited by it and forego a strike if they thought workers could get a better deal.

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An alternative would be to fix the subsidy in the City Charter. That could be the nuclear option against the union. Okay, you have the right to strike but good luck with that if the Council were barred by city charter from spending a dime more than prescribed by law.

The point is that in September 2015, the Council said they were going to start having these conversations so there would never be another strike like the one the community endured that year.

Then nothing happened. What's that about insanity and doing the same thing over and over again?

Maybe both sides will get religion. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe it has something to do with “covfefe." 

So we are coming up on 60 days out of a potential strike and we have  no way to know if the Council is on top of it.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 5 »

Jun 2, 2017, 4:27 pm
-1 +0

Well, I guess the city charter needs to be fixed…and not just with the primary/not primary election system, either.

I always thought, and always will think, that any law anywhere prohibiting workers from striking is absolutely ludicrous. If a group of workers decide not to show up to work any more until their demands are met, who in the world is going to stop them? What are you going to do? Force them to go back to work? That would be a 13th Amendment violation.

If Sun Tran was run by the city, their workers could still strike by coming down with their version of the “Blue flu”. “Bus flu”, maybe? Anyway, that’s a way around that ridiculous part of the city charter.

Besides all that…we’ve been looking at this all wrong all these years. Driving a bus is not quantum physics; I’m pretty sure a large percentage of the Tucson region’s work force is either qualified to do it, or can become so in a very short amount of time. If the bus drivers go on strike…replace them. Seriously, how hard is that? Didn’t president Reagan employ a similar tactic during his term when air traffic controllers went on strike?

Jun 2, 2017, 12:53 pm
-0 +0

Oh well there you have it, thanks Dylan. So is $5mil worth it? That’s 11.4% of the CoT’s subsidy, sizable but not enormous.

Jun 2, 2017, 12:50 pm
-0 +0

It’s not illegal for CoT to run Sun Tran, however to get the federal money the union members must be allowed to strike. No big deal, except I believe that the city’s charter does not allow public employees to go on strike. So either we could forgo the federal money (not sure how much that is compared to the 44mil CoT already puts in) or we’d have to change the city charter to allow all public employees to go on strike and that seems beyond outlandish.

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Paul Ingram/

Striking Sun Tran workers walking the picket line in 2015.


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