TriMet’s top boss Neil McFarlane got a raise this week, with the Board of Directors increasing his salary to $243,100 – and that’s not counting his benefits, bonuses, or that neat $15,000 per month retirement he’ll earn whenever the next boss takes over. The Union has looked over Neil’s performance review by the Board, and we can’t help but notice that it’s a little more company spin than fact (shocking, we know). In the interests of providing our members and the public with an authentic assessment of Neil’s performance as GM, here’s our response to his performance review:
The Board is absolutely right when it says “Neil’s performance has been impressive in meeting the Board’s objectives.” Unfortunately, those objectives are absolutely out of touch with the needs of TriMet’s workers, riders, and our region as a whole.
Under Neil’s leadership and the Board’s so-called “oversight,” TriMet management has failed to make meaningful progress on virtually every issue confronting the agency: declining ridership, an epidemic of assaults against drivers and riders, a sustained assault on the front-line workers who make transit possible, and willful ignorance toward riders’ demands for fare relief, just to name a few issues.
Safety on transit is something that the union is deeply concerned about, and no issue is more important to our members than ending the epidemic of assaults against workers. The Board gives Neil high marks for his approach to safety issues; for the front-line workers who see the situation first-hand, that feels like a cruel joke.
Of course, Neil’s performance evaluation DOESN’T praise him for ending assaults against workers. Even TriMet’s communications department couldn’t spin the situation that well. No, what the Board praises is that Neil’s presided over a drop in workers’ compensation incidents and claims – our workers’ comp system makes it unbelievably hard for a transit worker who’s been assaulted to have their claim approved. So for all their talk about safety, the Board ignores the facts: assaults against drivers are at an all-time high, and we’re on track to double the record rate of assaults we saw last year. The reality is that our members are spit on, kicked, punched, verbally assaulted, harassed, and menaced on a daily basis; the fact that they’re not getting workers’ comp afterwards is inhumane, not an indication that the system is any safer.
And one quick note on barriers: the Board praises TriMet’s new test of barriers to keep bus operators physically shielded from assaults. Now, in the transit world, barriers are controversial: some of our members love them, and some hate them. But what’s not in dispute is that the barriers TriMet’s been testing on vehicles are an absolute joke: half-walls of plastic and Plexiglass that don’t do much more than make it harder for a driver to get out of their seat in an emergency. As we’ve seen in places like DC, poorly-designed barriers are worse than no protection at all.
Service and on-time performance
Our members want to get riders where they need to go on time. That’s why our drivers routinely dehydrate themselves or wear diapers to work, in order to avoid taking bathroom breaks. Yes, your drivers put their short- and long-term health at risk because they know you depend on them. But we also want to make sure you have a safe ride; as the expression among some Peruvian bus drivers goes, “it’s better to arrive a little late in this life than early to the next.” But TriMet management makes it impossible for our workers to prioritize safety because of the threat of punishment for failing to meet on-time performance metrics. “OTP” – on-time performance – has become something like a religious mantra for TriMet management. Above any other value, they want to know that front-line workers are doing everything they can to meet artificially-tight schedules that leave no margin for error. Although the company will tell you different, every TriMet worker knows: OTP matters more than safety. That’s why this is the last thing you see as you pull out of Powell Garage for your shift; the safety sign is behind you and not visible.
To give just one example of how this plays out, because we mentioned bathroom breaks just a second ago: the urgent need to go to the restroom can lead to distracted driving, but schedules are so tight that our members often don’t get breaks during their shifts (if there’s even a bathroom available to them – on some routes, toilets are rarer than unicorns). There’s even a term for that: “turn and burn.” An emphasis on OTP without a commitment to safety is a recipe for disaster, as we saw in 2004 when ATU sister Diane Boothe was killed by her bus as she rushed to the use the restroom at the end of a shift.
Now, we don’t need to say much about the Board’s praise for how Neil and his lackeys dealt with the heat and ice this year – we’ve already covered how totally unprepared management was for this year’s weather. There’s no doubt that extreme conditions like snowstorms and heat waves pose challenges to a transit agency. But the meltdowns riders experienced this year wouldn’t have been half as bad if management had bothered to listen to its front-line workers. And since climate change makes hot summers and icy winters more likely in our region, Neil and the Board need to start paying attention to their in-house experts: our members.
TriMet’s new business plan
We’ll have a separate critique of TriMet’s new business plan soon, because it’s a doozy of a document. The short version: it envisions an agency where managers make even more money and front-line workers make less; where highly-skilled operators are slowly replaced with robots as a way to reduce the company’s labor costs; where retirees who spent their lives breaking their bodies to move this community face cuts to their health benefits and no security in retirement; and where the company remains an unaccountable property-development agency focused on capital projects designed to make wealthy landowners even richer at the expense of actual public transit. Those are just the highlights – stay tuned!
Transit corridor projects
The Board hails Neil’s two shiniest crown jewels: the Division “Bus Rapid Transit” project (see below for an explanation of the scare quotes), and the Southwest Corridor, also known as the Purple Line. Both of these projects fail to meet their most basic objectives, and like most of TriMet’s capital projects, are designed with federal grant applications in mind, not the needs of riders and the community. Praising Neil for his execution of capital projects is a little like giving kudos to the guy who builds a bridge in the middle of the desert: sure, the process is going swimmingly, but do we really need the bridge?
The Southwest Corridor, aka the Purple Line, is a classic TriMet boondoggle. Originally, it was supposed to improve transportation access in SW Portland, Tigard, Tualatin, all the way out to Sherwood. And rightly so: roads are full, and more people are moving into the area, so transit is really the only option. So, the goal was to serve Portland’s Multnomah Village, the Hillsdale neighborhood, OHSU, Portland Community College Sylvania Campus, and out to the City of Sherwood. Sounds great!
But of course, TriMet’s focus on their bottom line means that doing this project right would be too expensive. So slowly, the company encouraged Metro and the project Steering Committee to whittle down the project. Service to PCC? Nope! To OHSU? Dream on! Sherwood? No, how about we just end at the Bridgeport Village Mall. What was originally a critically-necessary transit project with the potential to transform this entire Corridor for the better has become a vanity light-rail project designed to help Tigard with a couple of downtown development projects and get tourists from downtown Portland to the mall. To the tune of $2.4 billion+.
And what about the Division “Bus Rapid Transit” Project? Well, what was originally a powerful community connector service using longer buses in dedicated right-of-way has become an express version of the #4, with fewer stops and no dedicated travel lanes. Current projections show that it’ll barely save any time at all over current service, and our drivers aren’t quite sure how they’ll manage new, longer, 60-foot buses through narrow streets. Just like the Purple Line, this project could have led to incredible benefits for our community. Now, elders and folks with disabilities have to go farther to get to a stop for service that’s no better than they have today.
We’re so happy that management feels it’s finally addressing its key staffing issues. Unfortunately, for some reason, that DOESN’T include hiring the approximately 25 mechanics which are needed to actually meet our system’s maintenance needs, and we continue to fall woefully behind on maintenance metrics. The reality is, we need fewer managers and more front-line workers, full stop.
Our friends over at OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and Bus Riders Unite have done wonderful work critiquing the design of the Hop Fastpass electronic fare, so we won’t say much about it here, but do check out their work. But let’s talk about the roll-out: from day one of the implementation of the $35 million Hop program, our drivers and fare inspectors were barely informed about what was happening with electronic fares, if at all. Inspectors didn’t have the tools to check e-fares, and received basically no guidance on what to do in these situations. And when cards and phone payments started, the union hall received call after call from drivers asking what was going on. If you’re going to implement a new system, it’s worth communicating to the front-line folks who will be overseeing that system what’s happening. Neil and the Gang failed to do so.
Capital improvement plan
For more about why TriMet’s fetish for capital projects at the expense of service enhancements isn’t worth the kudos it’s getting, check out our take on the Southwest Corridor and the Division “Bus Rapid Transit” project above. We’ll note as well that, despite focusing on the kind of capital projects that line the pockets of Neil’s developer buddies, somehow that hasn’t trickled down to repairs to the Cleveland Avenue MAX Station employee bathroom, which has been closed for two years due to black mold contamination. In fact, one operator recently told us, “I’ve sort of given up hope that we’d ever have a quality bathroom here again.”
Our relationship with TriMet management is at an all-time low, and it’s thanks to Neil and his senior leadership, not to mention their chief of labor relations (and Portland Jobs with Justice’s 2016 Scrooge of the Year award-winner).
The Board makes a big fuss about the number of proposals ATU has brought to the table, as if somehow it’s a metric that means something. They fail to mention that we’re working to win back what was taken from our members in the last contract, especially health benefits for our members and retirees, and ensuring that union work is being done by union members, not low-paid outside contractors. The number of proposals we’re bringing to the table is frankly modest, and focused entirely on making our members whole again. As we’ve said before: our members and retirees do damn good skilled work for the company, and they break their bodies over the course of their careers to keep public transit moving. The absolute least we can do is ensure that our transit workers are able to get the health care they need, and know that they’ll be taken care of in retirement.
And it’s telling that the Board is so happy that contracting out union work is on the negotiating table: that’s a hell of a lot easier than actually hiring the workers you need to do the job, let alone do the job well. We’ve said it before – contracting out is demeaning to our workers, results in a lower-quality outcome or product, and ultimately costs TriMet more money. The fact that the Board frames this as a positive for labor relations shows how completely they are on the side of management, and how little they care about their front-line workers.
Social equity initiatives
It’s always interesting to see Neil, his managers, and the Board tout a low-income fare as a social equity initiative that they’re proposing out of the goodness of their heart. Our members know that the folks who originally proposed this idea and have fought for it for years are our partners at Bus Riders Unite, the transit riders’ union. BRU, along with parent organization OPAL, conducted a community-based research study to examine the feasability of a low-income fare, and how to pay for it (we’ll note that the cost they projected for this program was dollar-for-dollar the figure the company has suggested it will cost). As OPAL and BRU have proven: TriMet’s always had the money to pay for a low-income fare because their budget is a shell game, with funds being transferred between capital projects and operations at the Board’s whim. They could have easily using existing funds to offer a low-income fare; they don’t get credit for implementing a half-assed version of somebody else’s idea.
As our members and the public know, ATU 757 opposed the statewide transportation package. We have no issue with boosting funding for transit, cycling, walking, and roads, we just don’t think those investments should come out of the paychecks of working folks, which is how the transportation package is funded. Whether or not those investments will benefit poor folks is a matter of debate (our take: they won’t). What’s undeniably true is that the suite of new taxes on gas and wages – not to mention new tolls and “congestion pricing” – means that working folks will bring home less money starting in 2019 without a whole lot to show for it. And simply throwing money at TriMet’s leadership and hoping that will result in new and improved transit service is absolutely laughable.
Neil McFarlane and his leadership team have been an unmitigated disaster for public transit in our region. Riders and workers have felt this pain through service cuts, attacks on health care, unsafe conditions on trains and buses, and so much more. And that the TriMet Board had the audacity to give Neil a 3% raise should demonstrate how out of touch they are with the actual reality in front of them.
We deserve better. ATU 757 renews its commitment to fight to change the structure and culture of TriMet management, and to empower workers and riders alike to take control of our transit system. After all: it isn’t called “public” transit for nothing.