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Details show bus strike disaster was much ado about nothing

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What the Devil won't tell you

Details show bus strike disaster was much ado about nothing

Predictable deal, city's 11th-hour leadership show Sun Tran could have been running sooner

  • Paul Ingram/

Game ball to Mike Ortega.

No snark follows (OK, some snark follows).

What doesn't follow is a list of numbers — well, maybe some numbers — as I explain who got hosed. Neither labor nor management were thrown under the bus.

Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega, finally given rein to push a deal, figured out how to settle the Sun Tran strike so both sides walked away feeling like they won something. And he did it without much long-term cost to the city. The $4.3 million deal gave drivers and mechanics raises and addressed some safety issues. Professional Transit Management, the private contractor that runs the system, didn't get saddled with massive costs, which would have forced them to go back to the city for bigger subsidies, year after year.

Ortega explained in a memo he sent out Friday how he brainstormed the idea of giving all striking employees a $3,300 one-time bonus (totaling $1.7 million) that won't be folded into base pay. That means it won't cost the system more money in the following years.

If he did that, the city owes him a beer. The city/PTM won't be a million dollars in the hole when they go to negotiate a new deal with labor come 2017.

The move was a game-winning touchdown pass as the clock ticked away.

Of course, late-game heroics are often necessary when the hero's team has fumbled about for the previous 58 minutes.

Predictable outcome

Nothing in the deal is shocking, which tempts one to ask: Why the hell would it be kept secret? The decision by PTM and the union — tacitly agreed to at first by the city — to refuse to disclose the terms that settled this disastrous strike only put a crap-stained bow on the resolution.

The cost of the deal isn't crushing and didn't require non-linear math, so why the hell didn't the City Council get involved earlier? It took the Council holding this thing called "a meeting" and authorizing PTM to find "one-time savings" — subtracting actual costs from spending originally forecast — to meet at least some of the union's demands. So why did it take a month for the Council to decide to hold this obscure ritual and provide this crazy thing called "direction?"

City Attorney Mike Rankin told the Council they couldn't legally get involved in the talks. Then how could they do what they did?

If the Council was so impotent, why did their eventual decisiveness end the strike? Perhaps the answer is more about electoral politics than smart public policy?

Only after PTM started looking for replacement workers ("scabs" if you live in a union household) did the AFL-CIO start bitching at Council members facing re-election. The Council issued marching orders a month into the strike, when it looked like labor might cause trouble for incumbents on the ballot. Council members were alarmed enough to show sympathy for riders who lost their jobs, couldn't attend classes or get to doctor's appointments. They did not commiserate enough to find 0.16 percent of the city's $500 million general fund to end the catastrophe sooner, or heaven forbid 0.3 percent to shorten it.

If the Council was trying to avoid upping the subsidy or raising fares to pay for a new deal, they were being silly. Any deal was going to carry with it "ongoing costs" as the new base pay rose. Sun Tran and the city even budgeted $900,000 more for the price of labor after this year, but that money doesn't fully cover the eventual $1.4 million ongoing cost of the deal (a net $500,000 over previous Sun Tran projections). That's not a lot of money but neither was the $800,000 in additional costs this year it took to end the strike sooner.

A special deal given to Sun Tran wouldn't affect other unions dealing with the city because city workers can't strike, by law. Sun Tran gets 30 percent of its funding from federal grants, which come along with a requirement for full bargaining rights for workers. Those rights bother some voters.

What gives with the hostility?

I'm curious. Why does the public at large seem to have such an aversion to unions? I'm no Eugene Debs. I question some of labor's demands in terms of limiting trade in the name of job security. I question past practices involving union pension funds. I question some of the strong-arming done today by public-sector unions to get their way in a time of tight budgets.

I don't get why people feel aggrieved when others avail themselves of the right to collective bargaining and even strikes to improve pay and benefits.

We all have a sense that it's harder to get ahead than it should be, or was a generation ago. We just reach different conclusions about whom to blame.

We live in a world where bus drivers can command a higher wage than their perceived value because they're unionized and have the right to strike. So what? The same people bitching can also organize and give themselves the right to strike. Or would that be ... bad?

Sun Tran drivers and mechanics help provide one of the best mass transit systems in the country and they do it with less of a public subsidy than their typical peers. Why shouldn't they make more money? Is it because you don't?

Well, the American worker's productivity is helping launch record profits and just ain't seeing the upside. Bitching about it is your God-given right. Just don't pretend Sun Tran drivers are to blame. The tide is rising. If your boat ain't lifting, maybe check into why. I would offer up what the experts say, but I'm experimenting with pith in the form of fewer than 2,000 words. Fine, check out this study.


I raise this point because strikes live and die based on public opinion, and in Tucson I sensed a general contempt for Teamsters Local 104.

Sun Tran riders and mechanics didn't help themselves when they rather publicly demanded a golden throne as the strike began on Aug. 6. The Teamsters called for big raises and a pension package they said would cost $10 million for a three-year deal. PTM, the private contractor, pegged the price closer to $20 million for the proposal. PTM was offering $7 million to $17 million less, depending on whose numbers you believed.

Also, the Teamsters always seem to wait until the last minute to negotiate a deal. Strikes were narrowly avoided in 1998, 2007 and then last year. The union went on strike in 1997, 2001 and again this year. That's six crises in 18 years. However, labor negotiator Andy Marshall's style has been to keep wheeling and dealing so long as talks were underway with a legit chance of avoiding a strike. There's nothing saying contracts can't be resolved earlier than that.

This year, PTM pretty much refused to negotiate from the get-go, ensuring a strike would happen, and clung to a don't-talk strategy for weeks. 

By mid-August the unions had come way down to a $5.7 million list of demands. PTM stood firm at $2.7 million. The midpoint is $4.2 million and that's basically where the deal was found. It shouldn't have taken a month to find an obvious strike price.

It shouldn't have taken the Council feeling heat from unions when the people who take 60,000 bus rides daily had their lives turned upside down by the strike.

Sigh ... now that that I've whipped that post long enough — let's get proactive to figure out how to prevent such long strikes in the future.

Council has good ideas

The City Council members themselves have had good ideas, but those ideas simply placed in the form of motions and op-eds are not solutions. The momentary upside of the mayor and each Council members trying to prove themselves the lone voice of reason runs contrary to the goal of whipping four votes to do reasonable things.

To fix the problem, a Council member has to find three other votes on the council. To do that, they must hash the deal out with others, while working with the city Transportation Department and then bouncing it off the city's legal staff. So, let's look at some ideas they've floated:

1) From Steve Kozachik and Karin Uhlich: Sun Tran needs a dedicated funding source so it's not subsidized by random acts of kindness from the city general fund. This is smart policy on behalf of of Karin and The Koz. Kozachik even makes the point that the Regional Transit Authority's bond program for widening city streets will cost more in maintenance as lane miles increase. So, let's add another half-cent to the sales tax to pay for transit and road maintenance.

Right? Great idea (if it ever comes to pass).

My take on this is that the city voters aren't going to go for a tax hike for Sun Tran. A solution may be to simply assign service fees, fines and forfeitures to pay for Sun Tran. These two revenue sources add up to $47 million and could be devoted strictly to Sun Tran. That would let management and workers know a clear and consistent stream of money is coming their way. There just won't be avalanches of cash.

Sun Tran is a public service and not a business. It will never be able to pay for itself with fees. They only cover about 30 percent of each ride. However, the bus system could adopt a business practice Ortega proposed to settled the strike. Let Sun Tran split with employees the value of half of efficiency gained as they run a tighter ship. Future raises can be tied to better farebox revenues that can be tapped for better pay and benefits for employees.

2) From Paul Cunningham and Regina Romero: Cut loose PTM and run the system locally. No offense PTM, you guys ran the play the city called, though at times you were assholes about it. Not negotiating may have sent signals to other unions in the 70 other U.S. communities in which you run buses, but we don't need that B.S. here.

To qualify for that monster federal grant, the riders can't be city workers stripped of the right to strike. But nothing says Sun Tran can't be run by a corporation that thinks Tucson first, rather than being run by a company owned by the French government.

3) From I bet every Council member if you stuck them in the arm with sodium pentothal: Raise bus fares. They know this needs to happen but fear activist Brian Flagg. He is a tireless supporter of the poor and under-employed, and the brother knows how to pack a Council meeting with folks like the Bus Riders Union when it comes time to discuss fare hikes.

I'll stick my head in the lion's mouth as a guy who both digs Flagg and is dependent on Sun Tran to get around. We have to raise fares, Brian. Sorry. Why? The average fare after low-income economy passes are figured in runs 63 cents per rider. Sun Tran is already subsidized at an amount equal to 25 percent of all sales tax dollars collected in Tucson. 

Just don't expect a windfall from higher fares. We can charge $10 per ride to teach the poor a lesson or two but no one will get on board. According to a 2014 study by Transdev, which owned PTM and at the time went by the name "Veolia" (the study is authored under that name; refer back to this column for more on the tangled corporate geneology), raising rates 50 percent would only increase collections by 27 percent. Increases in price affect use in an economic concept called elasticity: price affects demand.

Veolia/Transdev's best case scenario was a $4 million total increase in fares on a $100-plus million Sun Tran budget.

4) Here's an idea I have: If at all possible, move the collective bargaining deadline back a month. The Teamsters deal always ends on Aug. 1 of whatever year the contract expires. Changing that date to the July 1 synchronizes it with the city's fiscal year and forces the bargaining agreement to be a part of the budget talks. Making these dates mesh may make it harder for the Teamsters to threaten strikes every time their labor deal is done.

The deal to end the Sun Tran strike was hardly a gobsmacker. No one won. No one lost. Strike that: The 60,000 riders lost every day the Council failed to show the leadership to end it, before they pushed back and Ortega offered up his outside-the-lines thinking.

The whole mess wound up being much ado about nothing, other than disaster, hardship and catastrophe endured by Sun Tran's 60,000 daily riders. That should piss people off and make us make the Council make sure it never happens again.

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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