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Stop calling it Sun Tran: Bus strike a piece of a bigger puzzle

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What the Devil won't tell you

Stop calling it Sun Tran: Bus strike a piece of a bigger puzzle

A look at the players behind the bottleneck leads all the way to France

  • Why would a Sun Tran bus be rolling down a street in Paris? That's the headquarters of Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, the French government-owned company that owns a big chunk of the company that runs Tucson's bus system.
    photo illustration — a composite from Edal Anton Lefterov/Wikimedia and fdenardo1/FlickrWhy would a Sun Tran bus be rolling down a street in Paris? That's the headquarters of Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, the French government-owned company that owns a big chunk of the company that runs Tucson's bus system.

When my mother couldn't get to the doctor to have some blood work done, I had no idea Napoleon III was involved, let alone Louis XVIII.

Such is the joie de vivre in the big pueblo when you have a bus strike to contend with and the Internet at your disposal.

As the Sun Tran strike rolled through its eighth day, neither party seemed to be expressing confidence in the impasse breaking any time soon. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Tucsonans can't get to work or school, let alone across town or Downtown just to have some fun, as Sun Tran employees remain on strike.

I can't help thinking that the strike is getting out of hand because it's part of a bigger game and a small piece in a global agenda far removed from whether or not Tucsonans can get to work. There is more to the story than how Sun Tran general manager Kate Reilly and Teamsters Local 104 secretary-treasurer Andrew Marshall don't have nice things to say about each other.

Labor and Sun Tran are practicing that time-honored bargaining tactic of not talking to one another at all. No negotiations are even being planned, which is absolute bullshit.

Both sides agree Sun Tran will pay 100 percent coverage on health, dental and vision, plus adding the Cesar Chavez holiday observed by Tucson city workers. After that the chasm spreads out much wider.

The company argues that half of all drivers earn $19.22 per hour, so they are offering a 50 cent per hour raise for new drivers only, meaning none of the membership who vote on any deal will see a dime. They are offering an increase in pensions from the $2.42 to as much as a $2.72 contribution.

Labor — brace yourselves — wants a contribution of up to $6 per hour for pensions, on top of a raise of as much as $5 an hour to go along with free medical, dental and vision. They also want something to be done about driver safety, after one of their own was stabbed multiple times.

Okay. Wow. Really ... Really? Really!

How do I put this gently? When I left the Tucson Citizen after 11 years I was earning about $40,000 per year ($19.23 per hour), with a $150 co-pay and a teeny tiny pension of virtually nothing after five years that I will see a lot later in life. I went to college for six years and got two degrees. I imagine there are a lot of Tucsonans out there who are thinking the same thing when they read those demands.

Yet, that simply means that Sun Tran should provide a counter-offer sitting nose-to-nose across the table with the union. The union — like Sun Tran riders — ain't going anywhere and must be negotiated with, talked to and maybe even browbeaten. Not talking is pony pucks. If it were just Sun Tran and the union, they probably would talk. However, Sun Tran has masters to answer to and they don't sit on the Tucson City Council.

A political problem

Council members up for re-election are put in a box by the strike, needing not just union votes but union energy to stave off the kind of apathy that could cost them. Yet the city already subsidizes Sun Tran with $2.24 per rider. The city is, as always, broke. To pay the wages, the city would probably have to agree to raise Sun Tran fares, which they don't want to do to a ridership that is already struggling financially. Lastly, they want to avoid the appearance of being too far in the back pocket of unions demanding pay that higher skilled workers can't command. Anyway, the City Council can't legally interfere with the negotiations.

So Councilmembers Paul Cunningham and Regina Romero simply declared that Sun Tran employees should make what they're worth. It must be hard out there on that limb.

But Romero and Cunningham are in the same position others liberals all over the world find themselves, trying to show loyalty to labor while proving themselves business friendly in the hostile new global economy.

It's easy to get myopic about the fact that these are bus drivers because Tucson wages suck in general. It's so easy to get myopic that the media keeps referring to this labor dispute as being between Teamsters Local 104 and Sun Tran. It is in fact, a microcosm of the sort of wage-related Schadenfreude that tells us we don't have to make money so long as our neighbors make less while we serve the multi-national beast.

One of the least discussed aspects of the 1 percent versus 99 percent paradigm is how the 99 percent need to at least try to bargain up their wage based on the value they create for an employer.

Workers who take the first salary offer as the last salary offer need to learn how to bargain better. My empirical experience in Tucson is that workers negotiate salaries by first thanking employers for giving them a job and then agreeing to punch themselves daily as a show of unworthiness for the gift they have been given.

No, Virginia, jobs don't come from Santa Claus. No one "gives you one." You are hired to do work that needs being done to add value to a company. Workers get a cut of that percentage. How much is often up to the worker being a dick about it.

So, the problem is not bus drivers wanting to make more money. Instead in the United States, and especially Tucson, it is workers not valuing their contribution enough to demand more money.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all wake up in a world tomorrow where bus drivers earn a better living than half of the other workers in town, everyone else will start demanding their value. Remember, a wage is a negotiation. You are worth what someone is willing to pay. If you are thankful for the job and think your labor is a dime an hour, you aren't likely pushing. In other words: why should Sun Tran workers suffer because no one else in town knows how to bargain?

The man driving the bus

Some might say that to achieve better wages on the back of taxpayers is socialism that undermines the private sector company's ability to make a profit. Thank you for opening that door that I will now swagger through because it's also easy to get myopic about what Sun Tran really is.

The media keeps referring to Sun Tran's position this and Sun Tran's proposals that, but for the purposes of the strike Sun Tran is not Sun Tran. One takes a Sun Tran. Sun Tran is not run by Sun Tran, and it ain't Kate Reilly, which is key to understanding the strike.

Sun Tran is not Sun Tran and this strike has all the hallmarks of a guy named Thomas Hock. Hock is the CEO of Professional Transit Management, the Cincinnati-based company that runs Sun Tran.

The city contracts with Professional Transit Management to handle the day-to-day operations of Sun Tran, which runs the routes, collects the fairs and takes a cut. Sun Tran workers work for Professional Transit Management and not the city. They are private-sector employees but the company receives a city subsidy to keep fares cheap.

All labor contracts, I imagine are different but the dynamic is similar because what unions negotiate for their drivers affects how much Hock's company gets to keep as profit. Hock has been accused of being a junkyard dog negotiator who doesn't mind strikes. In fact,  labor unions across he country say he has stonewalled so strikes happen. Such has been the accusation in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, Worcester, Massachusetts and Duchess County New York, as detailed by Service Employees International Union Local 1021 in Oakland, Calif. An independent investigation of a Bay Area Rapid Transit strike found Hock largely responsible for the work stoppage.

Nothing more changed.

A year later, this is how one union negotiator put it anonymously to the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

"We just walked out of a war," one anonymous BART employee (or manager) said. Other anonymous quotes follow a similar theme: "It was like Vietnam... Labor massacre... The bloodiest strike ever..."

The strike was so bad the BART board fired Hock and decided to do a postmortem investigation and hired an outside consultant to review what happened. IT found that BART's first mistake was hiring Hock, who pushed management to let the strike happen.

To be fair, the consultant's report also found BART to be a swamp of decades-old internecine warfare. I'll even cut Hock more slack because labor negotiations aren't always tiddlywinks. The game is a bit of a contact sport.

If I chuckled at labor's demands in Tucson, Hock's response must have been more along the lines of the RAOFLMAO variety. The City Council has refused to raise bus fares and doesn't have the scratch to make up the difference of what labor wants. Tucson subsidizes Sun Tran, but less than other peer communities help foot the bill for their transit systems. A similar dynamic was in play in San Francisco-Oakland. So he, as the investigation concludes, decided a strike was in the best interest of management to pressure labor to break.

Seeing as there are no negotiations in Tucson currently, we can't say Hock is involved. He is the CEO of the company and a labor lawyer by trade. I imagine he is more than aware that the strike and its outcome is pivotal.

Who is Sun Tran, really ...?

Even if the city money were made available, Professional Transit Management may not want to spend it. There's one little nugget of information that sort of speaks to the issue. The union here alleges Professional Transit Management returned $2.2 million to the city during the past two years  and that is the name of the game.

Why? Because Professional Transit Management runs transit systems across the country and to get new customers you have to have a track record of pleasing current customers. Nothing says efficiency like returning money to a city or county. That works for future clients and Hock's bosses.

Yes, Boss Hock has bosses because Sun Tran is a cog in a much larger machine than Professional Transit Management.

Professional Transit Management is a subsidiary of Transdev. Transdev runs more than 200 transportation systems across North America. The company's own website suggests there is nothing but growth in their future. Some 80 percent of all transit systems are publicly run — the government does it — and those are potential new customers for Transdev. The privatization craze has helped companies like Transdev take over more and more transit systems. In 1998, local governments ran 90 percent of transit systems. Since then the number of privately run systems has doubled.

Transdev is married. The company in 2008 got hitched to Veolia Environmetal and became Veolia Transport, Veolia comes from older European money.

In 1853, Napoleon III commissioned Compagnie Générale des Eaux, which won a bid to run the city of Lyon's water supply. The company grew over the years as an environmental operation that focused on water services, before branching into waste management, energy and transportation. In 1998, it changed its name to Vivendi, and owned Seagram's and Universal Studios. It then settled on the name Veolia and shed many of its enterprises. It remains truly trans-national and conglomerated. They run the suburban bus system in New Caledonia, the Tczew, an inter-city rail system in Poland, the Jerusalem light rail and the transit system in Huinan County, China. The list goes on and on and on.

Transdev became Veolia for a few years but Veolia rebranded the name back to Transdev. Apparently, they missed the part where Transdev sounds like the corporate villain in RoboCop 7 but Veolia sounds like the aunt who bakes snickerdoodles. It must be a French thing ... or Veolia's reputation was nothing like an aunt with cookie batter, thus prompting the re-branding.

As part of the deal to merge, the idea was to go public and put their shares on sale, but that never happened. They didn't really need to because Veolia has a rich uncle named Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations and that company dates back to 1816, when King Louis XVIII created it to look after public funds and pensions (yes, we are still talking about Sun Tran). Caisse des Depot et Consignations today is a $300 billion company that employs 287,000. It now owns 60 percent of Transdev, which runs Sun Tran. It is not, however, a private company.

Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations is owned by the French government, which uses profits generated from far-flung operations, including the Sun Tran Route 4 bus down Speedway, to pay for ta-da, er, voila: ... French subsidized housing.

In other words, when we follow Sun Tran to the top of the food chain we end up staring at an off-duty Parisian mime, chilling in his Sun Tran-subsidized apartment, blowing Turkish smoke in our faces, while taunting: "Les emplois de centre d'appel sont pour des idiots!" ("Call center jobs are for idiots").

So the Teamsters Local 104 and Transdev are part of a bigger game.

Professional Transit Limited is negotiating on behalf of Transdev, which is actually the public face of an august and redoubtable Veolia, who are reporting to Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, who expect a profit from their properties to engage in mass social welfare.

If the local strike were truly local ...

I imagine the strike would have been either averted or fixed pretty quickly had the city not farmed out the job of labor-relation heavy back in 1999. The city's budget is public record. Transdev's budget is not. If it was, the drivers would have a better idea where they stand, and it's harder to be a complete asswipe to the people you run into at the street fair.

Sun Tran, absent Transdev, wouldn't be fearing any sign of weakness with 200 other transit systems and the French parliament watching. The Teamsters wouldn't be trying to win an unwinnable victory in the shadow of dwindling membership as they try to wring blood from a stone. Instead this is a proxy fight for the global showdown between the powers that be and the working man and working woman.

It's a little more than ironic that in its zeal to prove itself up to the privatization game, the city of Tucson let a private business run our bus system in the name of efficiency and in a bow of respect to capitalism — only to end up under the control of a socialist government.

Who knows how this will end? We can be certain it ain't capitalism if the company at the end of the money trail is government-owned and using the proceeds to make sure Jean-Pierre's rent is covered so he can make a living pretending to be stuck in a box on the Champs-Elysees.

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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