A lot of things that can be said about the struggle for wages and benefits for drivers can be taken the wrong way. After all, there are several different audiences here and their imperatives are different. It’s also hopelessly muddled by both sides’ appeals to what’s “fair”, a loose term that will never yield a clear answer to what to do.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). The sole responsibility of the union is to its members, and they are absolutely justified in pushing for as large a share of revenues for labor as they can get.
Due to a desire to maximize service delivery and a vague preference for social equity, I’d prefer if they valued avoiding layoffs over preserving compensation, and focused more on improving conditions and opportunities for part-timers, rather than more overtime and prerogatives for the most senior employees. But it’s not my place to tell them what their priorities should be.
The larger danger is that labor inflexibility creates the narrative that Metro revenue increases will simply go into the pockets of drivers. It’s a narrative that anti-transit writers like Michael Ennis are willing to reinforce by cherry-picking misleading statistics and removing them from their explanatory context, and one that threatens future revenue measures that all transit stakeholders support, including the ATU.
Metro and King County. Conversely, the responsibility of managers and politicians is to deliver the most service for the lowest cost, which means clamping down on wages and benefits among other savings measures. That’s as it should be in the fundamentally adversarial process of collective bargaining.
There are two constraints on this, one legitimate and one not. The first is that you don’t want to antagonize your ambassadors to the public (drivers) so much that service suffers, or lose talent to other agencies.
The second, less good, reason is that politicians are fundamentally in the business of getting votes. Regrettably, sometimes it’s more plausible to do that by winning the support of the union electoral machine than by being a responsible steward of public funds. Not that (I repeat) I somehow expect unions to not use all the legal means at their disposal.
I want to emphasize that this a big-picture argument and I can’t assert that this is going on, or not going on, with the people in charge for either the last ATU contract or the next one. It’s just a common dynamic with public-sector unions.
Voters, taxpayers, and riders. So where does that leave the rest of us? Well, I think our interest is in making sure that politicians and their representatives at Metro respect their responsibilities as described above, to keep labor costs as low as possible.
The last time I made this point, there was a lot of pushback in the comments to the effect of “how would YOU like it.” First of all, as a private sector employee I have no doubt that if my senior managers thought they could cut the pay and benefits of people like me without repurcussions for performance and retention, they would do so in a heartbeat.
However, I think that retort really comes from a misunderstanding of for whom the statement is intended. The union is pursuing its interests of its members as they understand them, and that’s fine. But I’m not sure, as riders, that we should be “rooting for them”, to the small extent that matters, because they’ve selected objectives largely counter to our interests.