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Council's helplessness in bus strike is wrong message for November

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What the Devil won't tell you

Council's helplessness in bus strike is wrong message for November

Sun Tran stoppage was an avoidable millstone in fall campaign

  • Frank Deanrdo/Flickr

So a lizard on my front window screen and I were talking about the upcoming City Council elections.

The lizard had a question: "Hey I was thinking about an ad the Republicans could run. It would go like 'a bus strike that cripples Tucson, one of the poorest cities in America and for 28 years, Councilwoman Shirley Scott has been a part of the problem ...' Do you think that would work?"

I told the lizard, "Yeah, but that's not the point."

"What's the point?" the lizard asked.

"The bloody point is a freaking lizard with a reptilian brain stem can strategize that attack."

And we're off! The city general election season has begun. Incumbent Democrats Paul Cunningham, Regina Romero and the veteran Scott are out of the gates against Republicans Kelly Lawton, Bill Hunt and Margaret Burkholder respectively.

I wonder what the issue is going to be?

Is there anything happening in the city? Anything going on? Golly, what is that decal on the 100-pound boulders the Democratic council members are dragging? It spells something: S-U-N ... sun ... T-R ... is that an A?

I've covered city elections from the outside and run the communications shop from the inside. I can tell you, the Council does not want to deal with the Sun Tran mess, when they are starting a race against the best slate of Republican candidates since Democrats swept Republicans Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt from their seats 10 years ago. Nothing I write here isn't being discussed by activists over beers far more colorfully. 

Democrats hold a solid but not insurmountable advantage in city-wide voter registration. Republicans have won in the past and have come dang close a couple of times. Tyler Vogt was within a percentage point of unseating Scott her last time up for re-election. Ben Buehler-Garcia came within 200 votes of beating Karin Uhlich in 2009. 

Put it this way: When Republicans run serious candidates, Democratic incumbents find themselves running for their political lives — with the mass transit system down for the count.

Call it an August Surprise that should have been snuffed out in April.

Blaming the City Council for the work stoppage and the utter absence of progress in negotiations may not be completely fair. Blame runneth a-plenty in many a-direction. Most notably, the private contractor the city hired to run Sun Tran absolutely refused to budge or even sit down with labor to discuss the strike, which takes the bargaining out of collective bargaining. Wednesday, management offered a deal the Teamsters called a "worse" offer than the original "firm and final" offer made by the contractor before the strike started.

If the Council candidates think they can shift the blame to Sun Tran's contractor, Professional Transit Management, then I have an exercise for them. Walk down Speedway and randomly ask Tucsonans if they have heard of A) Professional Transit Management or B) the Tucson City Council. 

I'm guessing answer B has a higher name ID.

If that doesn't convince them, look for PTM on the ballot this November. The company's name is nowhere to be seen.

Worse for the Democrats running for re-election, their union foot soldiers are starting to turn as Election Day approaches.

In a statement after the Teamsters rejected the latest offer, Andy Marshall, the lead negotiator for Local 104 representing Sun Tran workers, called out the Council for its a hands-off approach in light of legal opinion that members can't intervene in anyway in the labor talk. : 

The Mayor and Council have every right, and quite frankly they bear the responsibility, to direct the City Manager and the Tucson Department of Transportation to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that PTM is instructed to bargain in good faith and reach a fair and equitable settlement of the Sun Tran Strike.

A funny thing happens when you decide you want to be in charge. People blame you when shit goes wrong.

I know! Revelation!

We hear you and have heard you, Council members. There's nothing you can do. Your hands are tied. You are just the elected political leaders. The situation is out of your control. Or is that the state of Tucson's economic development efforts? Or was that Rio Nuevo? No, right! That's the current unimaginable stasis we don't have to imagine because it's happening.

"Re-elect us! we're powerless!" doesn't look good on a bumper sticker, the lizard on my front window screen has told me.

Talk, action, just no talk leading to action ...

At least there seems to be some, albeit hostile, action through a federal mediator. Mostly though, the strike has been waged in the media. The offer followed a press release by Sun Tran/PTM local honcho Kate Riley, but it seemed more media strategy than negotiation.

Meanwhile the parties involved are talking — just not with each other.

In the Daily Star this week, PTM/Transdev's local head honcho Kate Riley was nice enough to  offer up a mea culpa.

I do personally apologize for the difficult burden this has placed on all our riders. Rest assured, we will continue to work with the federal mediator to get back to the table and resolve this issue.

"Back to?" "Back to" the negotiating table? You have to have been there previously to "go back to" the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, Romero for putting out a statement this week that seems to blame the Sun Tran management company:

"Professional Transit Management/TransDev has seemingly opted out of their role in this negotiation. They have not returned to the table since the strike began. PTM’s primary responsibility is to keep the buses running, and they are failing at that task. "

Thank Transdev/Public Transit Management Limited for the lack of progress.

Romero said that Sun Tran's $13 million increase in general fund subsidy since 2010 is the largest of any city service. She makes the salient point that the city must operate through a third party because Sun Tran gets federal money. Federal money is tied to the right to strike and city employees can't per the City Charter. But she's making the point to the press, and that's the wrong audience.

Meanwhile, when I was on the John C. Scott Show this week, Marshall called in to point out to me that the union has backed off their $20 million three-year contract demand and are now seeking only an increase of $5.7 million during the next three years. I really wanted to just say, "You've got a deal! Get back to work."

It's one thing to negotiate through the media. It's another thing to negotiate with the media.

Things that should have happened for a thousand, Alex ...

Here's how the Sun Tran impasse could have gone down: Romero and the Council might have told Marshall's union explicitly the city will give no more money to Sun Tran beyond what it has, giving Riley security that she had the Council's support. Or, the Council could have tossed a couple million more into the kitty and let Riley know management was expected to move.

But we keep hearing that the Council can't negotiate with labor. A-ha! That may be true but I'm not talking about labor negotiations. I'm talking about budget negotiations.

The courts have ruled government has virtually unlimited immunity in their power to appropriate money. Budget decisions are political decisions, the courts have held, to be settled at the ballot box.

So, during the budget process this spring, the city could have asked, "Hey, the Teamsters have a new contract coming up, what is this going to cost us?" Knowing the price of labor would be a pretty important part of understanding what Sun Tran would need from the budget.

Professional Transit Management has two pools of money to pay drivers and mechanics. In Pile 1, the company has money they get from the city. In Pile 2, Sun Tran has money the company gets from fares. There is no séance money that the company, labor or the Council can manifest through self-actualization.

Only after the strike began did it become publicly apparent that the two sides were miles apart. Had the Teamsters' demands and Sun Tran's firm and final offer been unearthed as part of the budget process in April, that would have given all sides four months of lead time to head off the strike.

If you really want to get particular about it, the city could have directed the procurement office to place a very strong preference on getting a labor deal done before Sun Tran's current contract was executed.

Hell, one could argue that PTM/Transdev should have refused to sign a deal until the union had agreed to terms. It's hard to negotiate a deal to pay the cost of running Sun Tran without knowing what it will cost to run Sun Tran.

It ain't theoretical physics with manifolds and charmed states. 

It's fourth-grade arithmetic.

Don't bother me with what can get you sued and what won't. Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he never heard of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is on his way to being elected to his 400th term in Maricopa County.

Self-preservation required

The city either lacked the imagination that the strike would bite them in the ass, or it was just beset by bureaucratic lethargy. It's not hard to imagine the face-scratching procrastination in city offices.

One city manager was on the way out. Another was on the way in, so no one should go making big decisions. There were summer vacations to take. "Oh, look, the TPS cover sheet requires yet another memo. The process will play itself out and we'll get to it later." 

The strike is the kind of disaster that happens when everyone is making other plans and looking in other directions.

Three people who should have been paying an inordinate amount of attention to the labor talks are Scott, Romero and Cunningham. Back in February, when these races truly begin with living room campaign meetings over Diet Coke and snack food, someone should have asked with a mouth full of Funyuns: "What is it out there that can completely screw us in November?" 

Had they asked, and had they had some informal meetings with management and labor, the Council members could have pushed for a mix of fare increases and subsidy to give Sun Tran a $6 million increase over the span of the next three years. 

Bitching from business may have ensued. Fellow Councilman Steve Kozachik may have penned a letter to the editor griping about more money for Sun Tran and little extra for police and firefighters. 

Here's what would not have happened. The lady in my apartment complex management office, whose eyes typically glaze over when I talk to her about local politics, would not have buried her face in her hands and groaned, "I just want the strike to end." She drives. I'm betting she's representative of a lot of voters.

It's called self-preservation and a dose could have helped.

The making of a bad bumper sticker

I'm left kinda wondering what would happen if a commercial waste hauler contracted by the city, much like PTM, had a labor dispute? Would the trash at businesses and apartment complexes pile up all over town non-stop for 30 days? What if a construction firm doing a couple days work at a key intersection in Tucson suddenly was struck by a strike? 

How powerless would the Council be then? My guess is not very. However, such musings lead me to assume that the Council has a case of the slows because well, how do I put this? "Eh, they ride the bus. Who cares?"

I know Scott, Romero and Cunningham and they do care — I'll vouch and stipulate. Somehow, though, in an effort to look enough like "this" to that interest group, while not to appearing to be too much like "that" to those voters over there, they have calculated that the riders aren't worth the risk of action.

Politically, it's a deadly gamble. Sure, some motorists after a monsoon like to veer their wheels into a puddle next to a bus stop to dowse those without their own transpo, but the vast majority of Tucsonans are not self-obsessed snots. Tucsonans do have sympathy for the riders and likely have an increasing contempt for the parties prolonging the strike. 

If they also think the strike never should have happened and represents a multitude of failures, I'm with them.

Even the lizard gets that.

The Sun Tran saga leaves the GOP in the unfamiliar role as class warriors charging in on behalf of improving public services for the poor and low-wage workers. It could work for them so long as they don't snap out of it and start vowing to hack and slash the city's transit subsidy — a promise they've made time and again.

But there's an old adage in messaging that a charge only sticks if it fits a narrative. The GOP now has a big messaging advantage as they had been gearing up to tag Council members with the Tucson's poverty rate and lousy job market. Now they also have Sun Tran, and the Democrats are left with the same answer for both.

How does the bumper sticker: "Re-elect us! It's not our fault!" look on a Prius? Of course, they could do something as the "took-you-long-enough" threshold approaches.

Blame abounds alright, but how stressed must the City Council incumbents feel knowing they are the only ones in the Sun Tran strike drama who will find their names on the ballot?

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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