Book Review: Portland Transit 50-Year History

This was originally posted on From the Driver Side, by Deke N. Blue

Hey Portland Transit Management, we ALL exist for a purpose! Your first priority should be to support your Operations employees, the lug nuts of transit’s wheel, in our most-valuable roles. It would be simple for you to be more humble, but you decided decades ago to diverge the once-parallel paths we traveled to create today’s acrimonious environment. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a union to protect us. That’s your job, and you have failed in that regard. This book is a slap in the face to US; our efforts are largely-responsible for what you describe as your success.

Lest anyone forget, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 put out its own book a year ago, celebrating our 100-year history providing the intense labor of local transit. Unless my math is off, 100 years is twice 50.

I signed up for this job because transit operators perform a vital service to our city. Now after almost eight years, I have felt the sting of your disrespect in many ways, and I’m tired of it. We all are. Not only here in Portland, but transit workers worldwide have seen their own vocation insulted by those expected to support us.

Making History could have been a testimonial to the countless sacrifices union members have given Portland’s transit system. We have worked miracles, yet in this book, management brags about how “it” expanded services and “remained under budget” for decades, without much but derogatory remarks about its Operations staff. I was particularly dismayed to find a chapter entitled “Labor Strife, Again” which vilified our union’s struggle to negotiate better contracts in return for our professional and safe service.

It’s depressing management regards union workers, the very backbone of transit, as troublemakers who demand more than we’re worth. The book glorifies the politics which steered transit’s path for half a century. It is full of historic photos, graphs and statistics showing how it has “grown transit” while virtually ignoring those who make transit work.

Sure, there were a few photos of our wonderful operators whom we hold dear in our hearts: Willie Jack, Cynthia Kassab, Andrea Dobson and James Hilliard. While I might have missed any further mentions of others who have done the “work” of transit this past century, the intent of this book seems to downplay our proud contribution to local transit.

The most striking chapter regarding labor relations was about the “showdown” between management and our union in 1985. Management wanted to replace retiring full-time workers in favor of part-time “college students, (who) would have fewer benefits and would not be long-term employees.” Our union threatened to strike (legal in those days). City leaders locked up the decision makers in the downtown Hilton in hopes they would hammer down an agreement between the parties. It jokes about how “amusing” it was that our city’s Mayor at the time, Bud Clark, was “dodging the press” while the negotiations at the Hilton raged on. “No one leaked a thing!” Mayor Clark’s Chief of Staff bragged. Rather than strike, labor was able to hammer-out an agreement its members could agree to. Labor leaders had noted how management had installed “high cyclone fences” around Center Street garage in anticipation of a strike.

Then-General Manager Bud Cowen, according to the book, said “a strike would be disastrous not only for riders but also for the agency. He didn’t think TriMet could recover from a strike.”

Of course it couldn’t! Portland has long-depended on transit, given its horrid traffic congestion and lack of parking. The loss of transit for more than a few days could cripple this city. Our union negotiates from a severe disadvantage. Without the ability to strike, we face management’s slashing benefits and increasing insurance premiums while our pay fails to keep up with inflation. Our “Bored” of Directors increased the GM’s salary by five percent last year; we’ll be lucky to get a few percentage points with what it proposes. Our last pay raise was negated by the district’s near-tripling of our insurance premiums as the contract expired.

We’re at management’s mercy, and we’re suffering the pain of numerous stings from its acrimonious hive. Still, we do our jobs like the dedicated worker bees we are. Meanwhile, Portlanders simply stare at their phones, refusing to support those who provide them millions of safe rides each year.

Today, contract negotiations between transit management and our union are off-limits to the media. We bargain from a position of weakness, given Oregon’s requirement that if both sides fail to agree on terms, Binding Arbitration makes the final decision. Arbitrators take both sides’ proposals and decide whic is most-beneficial to the public. Either way, labor is punched bloody with our strong arms tied behind us. It’s a rigged outcome, and we keep fighting. Transit passengers have seen what we deal with. However, they have said we’re “unskilled” and “over-compensated”.

Management has a disgustingly-long wish list of takeaways. The most striking is its misguided desire to eliminate the Maintenance Apprenticeship Program. This gives hard-working, entry-level workers the opportunity to learn and grow in their trade while simultaneously earning a living wage. Without it, those who yearn to attain Journeyman-level mechanic positions rack up thousands of dollars in student loan debt while struggling to pay their bills. Why should they be granted employment above those who are already learning via real-world training while on-the-job? I would bet my ride’s dependability under the careful scrutiny of a Union Mechanic above a trade-school outsider any day. Even so, hundreds of our brothers and sisters are frozen in their dream of working their way up through real-world education. It makes no sense to hire non-union trained mechanics. In order to know how our system works, it’s vital our workforce learn from those who have years of dedicated transit experience.

Unless of course, you’re a corporate-driven upper management guru who sits comfortably in a six-figure salary they didn’t earn by slaving away even one day in our shoes. Given today’s economy, cutting the Apprenticeship Program is another insult to Working America.

Shame on you. This was a golden opportunity to make US feel included in the celebration of Portland’s transit success. Instead, you chose to ignore us, and that’s an insult this bus operator cannot ignore.

WE helped make the history you claim credit for. Yes, Portland transit has taken great strides the past century. We have taken innovative steps toward a stronger future. There have been many instances of success here, and for that we should ALL be proud. If we’re the “family” you say we are, then we should feel collectively vested in the success this book describes. When you forget those who made your accomplishments possible, it’s an empty victory.

We invite management going forward to come walk along the same path we do. Please stop fighting us, and instead join in a shared quest to keep improving our transit system.

From the beginning, there were horse-drawn streetcar operators who braved harsh conditions to give Portland Transit its humble beginning, and thus an opportunity to celebrate our success. Those brave transit pioneers fought hard for an enclosure to protect them from the relentless Northwest weather. We have been fighting for such basic decency ever since.

Our city has long-depended upon the dedicated individuals who have sacrificed to take Portlanders wherever they needed to be. Your disdain for our efforts is magnified in Making History. WE made this history possible. Thousands of earnest laborers are insulted by our exclusion from this celebration.

Therefore, my review of this book, even though it is full of flow charts and glorification of transit’s corporate takeover, is a strong D. Perhaps it merits a D-Minus, but I’ll spare you that because you had grace enough to feature a few photos of those of US who make your successes possible.

My hope is that the next 50 years see an uplifting for those who make the wheels roll. We make the brave sacrifices you take credit for. Get it right for once, will ya?

Thanks to Deke N. Blue for giving us permission to repost his original posting.

To view the original posting use this link:

By | 2020-02-18T09:59:21-08:00 February 18th, 2020|ATU 757|