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Muni Needs a Fair and Sustainable Labor Contract

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is entering into a second month of negotiations with Transport Workers Union Local 250-A and Local 200. On behalf of the SFMTA board, I want to offer some context on the talks, which should result in a fair and sustainable labor contract.

Last year, our customers were forced to adjust to reductions in service and changed schedule times, while at the same time the operators represented by TWU Local 250-A were the only employees to receive a 5.7 percent wage increase. In addition, operators and fare inspectors represented by TWU Local 250-A as well as supervisors represented by TWU Local 200 refused to accept the 4.62 percent pay reductions agreed to by other city and SFMTA employees.

In November, city voters were loud and clear when nearly 65 percent of them voted for Proposition G, the measure that now mandates this collective bargaining and sets binding arbitration if we cannot reach agreement. For the first time in decades, both the unions and SFMTA’s representatives are negotiating for salary, benefits and reform of costly work rules.

As SFMTA board members, we must assure the end result is fair to the riding public, the taxpayers and the employees. At the same time, any agreement must be fiscally sustainable, so that the services we provide can be maintained into the future.

Within that context of fair and sustainable, the SFMTA’s goals for these negotiations are straightforward.

First, we want to restructure the collective agreements so that we reduce the hidden costs involved with inefficient staffing and work rules. These savings should be reallocated into restoring or enhancing services to our customers.  We have put forward proposals that could generate more than $26 million in savings in this area alone.

Second, even though Proposition A authorized issuance of SFMTA bonds to update and replace our equipment and capital needs, we received a recent report questioning whether those bonds could be issued because of unsustainable costs contained in our collective bargaining agreements. We must make sure that our contractual agreements with our employees are sustainable while also allowing for necessary payment for safe and reliable equipment.

Third, we must have collective agreements that allow  the public to hold the SFMTA accountable for inefficient and inadequate service. Currently, too many responsibilities for staffing, scheduling and disciplining employees are governed by contractual joint union-management committees. Especially in the area of employee discipline, often the interests of the customers are lost in that joint process. Neither management nor the union is held accountable for the joint decisions. New collective agreements should clearly delineate that the union represents and advocates for employees and that management is held accountable for the basic decisions on service levels, staffing and efficiencies.

Finally, we currently estimate our structural deficit at $18 million and growing. the SFMTA must reduce our deficit at the same time that we preserve and enhance our transportation services. This means shared sacrifice. It also means that the only employee groups that did not suffer a wage reduction last year (the TWU-represented unions) should be expected to contribute their fair share this time.

I frequently hear from our customers who want to see improvement in our on-time performance and our overall transit service. I also hear from Muni employees who have expressed concern that they will serve as scapegoats in these contract negotiations and will be asked to make unfair sacrifices at the bargaining table.

Scapegoating won’t get us where we need to be. The truth is the vast majority of our employees do excellent work. We want to work with union leaders to secure a new labor contract that will compensate workers fairly, eliminate antiquated and inefficient work rules and lead to overall improved Muni service.

I come from a union background. My father was a union man, working 50 years as a mechanic for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and I have nothing but deep respect for working men and women and the unions that represent them.

But here in 2011, in an era of deficits and unsustainable spending, we need to change how things are done. And that means a contract with our employees that makes sense, one that works for the riding public and will keep Muni running for years to come.

Tom Nolan is chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors and the executive director of Project Open Hand. He is a former member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and is a regular Muni rider.