Dick Feeney
Dick Feeney
Dick Feeney, who retired as TriMet's public affairs director in 2003, says some onlookers missed the point in the transport agency's recent labor and funding dispute.

The real problem, says Feeney, was not the generosity of the 2002 drivers' health insurance plan, but the Oregon Legislature’s 2007 imposition of compulsory arbitration, which canceled TriMet’s control over its labor costs.  

The agency is struggling under $800 million in unfunded liability mostly because of retiree medical fees. That burden is ten times the size of what other Oregon public agencies face. Arbitrator David Gaba this month told the union to pare down is health coverage for the public good.  

“The generous terms of the 2002 agreement could have been reined in when the financial crisis hit in 2008 if it had not been for the unusually long contract term – seven years instead of three or even five," says Feeney, a member of The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland. “But the imposition by the 2007 legislature of compulsory arbitration for transit workers made that bad situation worse."

The unions sought the arbitration mandate in return for giving up the right to strike. Feeney thinks the Legislature's provision was a mistake for everyone. Unions gave up a basic means of keeping balance between workers and management. Management forfeited the ability to enact labor action of its own, including the implementation of its final offer to the union. The public could see routes reduced in the long run.

"TriMet did not protest when the union and the Legislature grabbed control of its finances away from it," Feeney says. "I think that was an error."

He's glad current TriMet managers are seeking to correct or reverse the 2007 legislation, which was passed to prevent a messy strike. The 2013 Legislature may take up the problem, with many convinced that the possibility of a strike is better than a steady decline and uncertain future.