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'Scab' labor threatens to prolong Sun Tran strike, scramble Tucson election

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What the Devil won't tell you

'Scab' labor threatens to prolong Sun Tran strike, scramble Tucson election

The City Council accepted union-busting strategy from outset — this is what it looks like

  • Striking Sun Tran workers walking the picket line on Aug. 21.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comStriking Sun Tran workers walking the picket line on Aug. 21.

Now this is union busting.

Sun Tran's private contractor, Professional Transit Management, a subsidiary of global transit conglomerate Transdev — owned by the French government to subsidize public housing — has just cut the wheel hard right into breaking the bus drivers' union, feeding the Tucson City Council members up for re-election a giant crapburger.

PTM has stockpiled savings during the Sun Tran strike and now is hitting the national market offering replacement workers $21 hourly for 60 hours per week (that's 20 hours at time-and-a-half, if you're doing the arithmetic) with two to four weeks of guaranteed pay, free air fare, hotel room and a per diem of $22 per day.

That all-important cog in Democratic political machinery, labor, is pissed and making noises that could cost incumbents Regina Romero, Shirley Scott and Paul Cunningham support. No, it's not just the drivers and mechanics of Teamsters Local 104 who are upset — it's their parent organization, the Arizona AFL-CIO, sounding the alarm. 

"This is a pivotal point in labor's history in Tucson," said Rebekah Friend, state AFL-CIO executive director "Will it affect local politics? Of course it will."

Friend called PTM's ramped up efforts at hiring replacement (some might call them "scab") workers "a very, very bad thing."

Ads popped up on Craigslist pages in Dallas, Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles and Orange County. The fax number in the ad is linked to National Tour Integrated Services (horrible autoplay video warning), an Irvine, Calif.-based marketing outfit whose main service is putting company logos on any manner of vehicles.

Sun Tran executives did not get back to me (no doubt their favorite columnist these days) for this piece but I'd love to hear from them and update. I will require a better answer than what management Wednesday gave the Tucson Weekly in email form.

In one of the great moments of double-speak in Southern Arizona political history, Sun Tran spokeswoman Kandi Young denied with capital letters that they ever put ads up anywhere, while absolutely confirming they did just that.

"Sun Tran and the City of Tucson have NOT placed any ads locally or nationally for replacement operators," she says in an email to the Weekly. "We are working with an outside vendor to provide operators so we can continue to offer service to our passengers, which is paid for out of the approved budget." 

Tucson, being the turnip-truck capital of the Southwest, is obviously bewildered by the witchery of hiring a vendor to bring on replacements by placing ads Professional Transit Management has nothing to do with. Note to Sun Tran, you look a lot less ridiculous when you delete the first part of the statement.

By Wednesday morning, the ads had been scrubbed from the interwebs and the City Council was holding their first press conference on the strike — a month into it — and reiterated their wish for the PTM to start negotiating face-to-face.

Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega said during the press conference that he has done what he can to get PTM to get back to work.

"I have asked, suggested, told Transdev that they need to be at the table and make sure that this strike is resolved as expeditiously as possible," Ortega said.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Councilmen Paul Cunningham and Steve Kozachik largely followed lawyers' orders (go figure) and refused to answer questions for fear of breaking the open meeting law.

Are you fucking kidding me?

You hold a press conference to project command of the situation. Then on advice of counsel, you are unwilling to take questions about your unwillingness to engage the situation on advice of counsel?

So my two questions would have been: 1) Are you aware of the concept of a negative feedback loop?; 2) you understand City Attorney Mike Rankin works for you and not the other way around, right ? OK, No. 2 may be a bit rhetorical — withdrawn.

Maybe this is why even the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce would agree with one thing Friend told me:

"Being a leader is not always about being comfortable and it isn't about being safe and making everyone happy. You are charged with handling the city of Tucson," she said.

The union label

Don't even try to overstate how important labor is for Democrats because overstating it can't be done.

Labor provides money to the county party, organization and support to the candidates, and holds the activists' sympathies. It's hard enough to get party activists to walk neighborhoods and "pack dialers" (the phone system that allows campaigns to quickly call voters for peer-to-peer persuasion) during a campaign without a labor bomb thrown into the room. 

Are we to believe the party that won't sanction a mailer without a stamp (the all-important "bug") from a union shop is just going to pretend scab labor isn't happening under the City Council's tacit consent?

Teamsters Local 104 leader Andy Marshall told me Wednesday that labor's support — typically automatic in Council races — is at risk because of the strike.

"This is a massive problem and they are not going to get any support from us until they fix it," Marshall said. Worse for the Democrats on the Council, Marshall isn't ruling out supporting the Republicans. 

"The Teamsters will support candidates from either party, so long as they support labor," Marshall said, adding as a kicker. "Sometimes it's easier to deal with Republicans."

Is that just big talk, or will the Teamsters and their allies in the city's other unions walk the walk?

Labor has flexed its muscle before and Democrats backed down.

In 2006, then-state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords was in a multi-headed race for Congress. U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva endorsed her and brought the unions to her at a price. Giffords had tapped legendary Arizona grocer Eddie Basha to co-chair her campaign. The unions forced her to dump Basha, who was livid about it, because his stores had beaten back unionization efforts. Labor is too strong a force inside Democratic politics to ignore.

In 2011, Tucson Unified School District board member Mark Stegeman was brought up for censure by the Democratic Party. You didn't hear about it because it wasn't covered. As communications director at the time for the party at the time, I sure as hell wasn't going to broadcast it.

Stegeman's crime was voting against a contract for the custodial workers' union. A lot of the party officers were reluctant privately but voted for the censure anyway because labor wanted it. I was a bit incredulous at the time and told Stegeman so afterward. The school district was facing a post-crash budget crunch and paltry aid coming from the state.

So, continuing to stand with PTM is a daring move by Romero, Scott and Cunningham much in the same way slathering yourself in steak juice is a daring move when hiking through bear country.

What Democrats do

I can hear from miles away, all the strategizing twisting Council campaigns into contortions. "We can't seem too friendly to labor but we need labor so we can't anger them too much but if we show ourselves willing to stand up to our friends in the union, we'll win more votes in Republican-leaning wards 2 and 4. So let's reiterate that we can't get involved, throw some hippie punches but at the end of the day hope labor comes back and maybe we'll win the Chamber of Commerce vote. Ready? Break!"

Folks, Monsanto stands a better chance of finding the support from the organic food crowd than does the City Council of winning the business community's support. The Democrats lost that vote several big box restrictions, a couple mini dorms and one Thrifity Block ago.

If such tricky designs sound familiar, it's because they are familiar. Democrats like to chase the love that won't come from the groups that live to see liberals die.

Let's game it out, if Democrats figure they start with a 10-point edge after independents cast their vote, then how do points come off that lead.

Knock three off because the GOP has fielded a good slate of candidates. Drop another two because of the general malaise in Tucson about the job market, economy and residual frustration over city antics involving Rio Nuevo. Lop off another three because of the Sun Tran strike and losing labor and subtract three because of labor's loss (a best-case scenario). Now the incumbent's 10-point edge is a one-point deficit.

When you have a 20-point edge in voter registration, you win elections by turning your base voter out — not Clintonesque "triangulation."

Long-haul drivers

PTM is out there guaranteeing money for two to four weeks, plus all the extras, which means they are gearing up for a much longer strike rather than sitting down to hash out a deal.

Tucson would appear to be in strike-mode for the long haul.

Apparently, this whole "can't-get-involved" thing cuts both ways. Just as the City Council has sworn up and down they can do nothing related to labor talks (despite a contract that gives them options), PTM seemed to think they didn't have to tell the city that this major union-busting effort was coming. I've heard the anecdotes of Council members bewildered by PTM/Transdev's latest move.

The question thus gets raised: "What did Council members think union busting looks like?" 

Did they think it meant more aggressive shaking of the fingers toward the nose? Did they think it meant holding breath longer, closer to death? Did they think it meant even more sternly worded press releases and op-eds?

No. It meant "scab" labor.

Is union busting good for city residents? It means expanded limited service for another month. However, the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. timetables don't account for the fact that many low-wage service jobs in town run weird hours. The poor in Tucson don't work 9-5. Those are the folks with cars.

Is it good for the city itself? Well, now money saved during the strike that could have ended the strike will now go in ever-increasing amounts to paying replacement labor. The Teamsters Local 104 calculated the worst-case scenario for taxpayers to be a $4 million hit to the Sun Tran budget. That assumes hiring the full compliment of bus drivers and that they all come from Orlando — the most expensive airline ticket to Tucson from the markets where they ads were placed. So that figure's a stretch, but this move ain't cheap any which way you tally it.

Is it good for the Council members up for re-election? Aw, hells no.

Labor busting is damn fine for management.

PTM looks for the world like it is trying to settle this strike in a way that sets an example to unions in the other systems they operate and keeps parent company Transdev happy. That forces Tucson's Teamsters to react, and eventually draw down the union's international strike fund, which would affect their ability to strike elsewhere.

What's increasingly clear is that Sun Tran's fate is out of Tucson's hands as PTM sends signals to all other unions it must deal with nationally and labor is forced to dig in its heels, rather than knuckling under.

Ultimately, the Council members themselves are on the hook for what now seems like an unending strike, as a series of events unfolds that they never see coming.

That seems to happen a lot.

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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