From the excellent Lindblom piece in last week’s Times about the Union’s contract negotiations with King County Metro:
[Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 president Paul] Bachtel said Metro isn’t like United Airlines, which needed wage concessions to stay in business. “They [drivers] don’t expect to give up wages, benefits, working conditions, when the transit agency could cut some of its services, and not take away pay.”
It should be noted that the issue really up for discussion isn’t outright wage cuts, but rather keeping minimum “cost-of-living” raises of 3% even when there is nearly no inflation, nor meaningful movement of the consumer price index, due to the recession. In other words, it’s expected that the cost-of-living will not increase much in coming years but the union president wants so-called “cost-of-living” increases — automatic pay raises — while tax revenues remain flat. It’s the union’s right to ask, but certainly the county has an obligation to get a good deal for the public. That’s balance is reflected in the spirit of the quote above: the ATU is asking for pay increases at the high cost of reduced bus service.
It’s about here in the discussion where we would usually choose our loyalties based on the question “Are bus drivers overpaid?” Or, are they paid too little? I don’t like to answer such leading questions, but a first answer has to be, “compared to what?” Do we look at peer agencies? Do we ask ourselves what a living wage is? And does a “living wage” include a house and a stay-at-home spouse? Or is renting an apartment still “living?” Those are complicated questions that no one, including me, is suited to answer for any other. I’m unprepared to make a value judgment about who “deserves” what pay. Most of us know, of course, that pay is earned; its first-order approximation is probably opportunity cost .
Continued after the jump…
According to the Times, Community Transit’s top wage is $25.35, Pierce Transit: $25.50, Everett Transit: $26.38, WTA in Bellingham: $24.01, Vancouver, WA: $23.79, Spokane: $22.68, and Olympia: $22.58. King County Metro’s is much higher than the rest of the agencies in the region at $28.47. Nationally, only Boston and San Jose drivers have higher top wages than our drivers. (It takes about five years before a full-time drivers reaches the top wage.)
It’s true that part-time drivers make less. They are also denied overtime work that usually goes to full-time operators. This is certainly bad policy, and the county should press to fix this wasteful bit of the current contract. Part-time union members should question the ATU’s position on this matter because it clearly favors full-time operators at the expensive of part-timers.
But full-time wages are clearly not unjustly low. While each of us would probably enjoy a raise, the union will likely have to choose between relatively stagnant  wages that grow only with inflation, or layoffs. The public has to choose between service cuts or less optimal labor conditions. Though I don’t think outright cutting wages is worthwhile, I think giving even 3% raises in this climate is unreasonable. So I think the county should move for no floor on the cost-of-living raises in the new contract that’s now under negotiation. Given that Metro’s wages are already higher than other peer agencies, the most prudent thing to do would be to grow wages only with inflation; that means no 3% minimum.
Outside of pure wages, it is also not unreasonable that the drivers union chooses between a lesser caliber of health insurance or bearing the burden of some of its cost. This move wouldn’t reflect a desire to deny drivers of quality care, but rather the conclusion that the skyrocketing costs of health care lead to the need for rational choices having to be with finite resources. If this unlikely change were to occur, it might make sense to give wage increases above inflation and the news would change some of the conclusions I reached above.
It seems the ATU has made a strategic decision to be aggressive and out-front of any sort of differences between the last contract and this one, even though 2005 was a much rosier economic climate than today. This posturing will likely force the contract into arbitration, but the drivers union cannot strike because of state law. The probable spirit of compromise coming from a third-party arbitrator would certainly benefit the group who postures the strongest. On the other hand, some bus drivers surely feel the county, Metro’s Transit Task Force, and even the state are posturing strongly against labor’s demands.
 That approximation could be refined by the supply and demand of a particular labor market. Further refinements could be looking at the stickiness of wages, upward wage pressure that preserves the currently employed, and market power influences (such as the “only plant/grocery store/bus agency in town” or a union). Opportunity cost for bus drivers could be estimated from what peer agencies pay.
 Stagnant is such a bad, negative term. But is it all that bad? If all driver wages nation-wide stayed stagnant but kept with inflation, then we’d still have local drivers that are paid well compared to the rest of the nation’s, and that is not a bad position for our drivers to be in.
Correction: An earlier version of this blog post stated that the COLA floor was 2%. It is 3% in the current contract.