An arbitrator has ruled in favor of TriMet in the transit agency's battle with its union over its current contract.


The ruling—binding and effective immediately—made today by arbitrator David Gaba saves TriMet $5 million in employee benefits sought by the Amalgamated Transit Union. The cash-strapped agency had set aside $20 million in a rainy-day fund in fear of losing the arbitration—which often favors unions.

"Today's ruling is terrific news for the entire region," TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane said in a statement, "especially our riders as we were facing another $5 million in service cuts if we had lost the arbitration. It provides quality benefits to our union employees, while beginning to reign in unsustainable health care benefits."

This ruling is only the latest skirmish in a long battle: This contract ends on Nov. 30, and the two sides, both unusually hostile, will return to the bargaining table then.

UPDATE, 4:40 pm:

Gaba's ruling is scathing to both sides—but makes special note of the union's lavish retiree benefits.

"TriMet's retiree medical benefits appear to be the most generous offered by any public employer in the northwest," he writes, "which explains in part why TriMet is faced with an $816 million unfunded liability due primarily to its unfunded retiree medical costs."

But the crux of Gaba's decision is that TriMet can't afford to pay its drivers anything more without cutting basic services. Here's the key paragraph:

While the Employer's Last Best Offer is riddled with legal questions and other infirmaries, the alternatives to their proposal are severe. If TriMet were a political subdivision that provided panoply of municipal services, this decision might well be different. Unfortunately, transit services are all that TriMet provides and there are no libraries, parks, pools or zoos to close. The Union and Employer are engaged in a zero sum game in which any increase in total compensation for the bargaining unit members will inevitably result in decreased transit service to the public.

Newly elected ATU president Bruce Hansen tells WW that Gaba's questions about the legality of TriMet's offer leaves the union room to keep fighting, even though the arbitration is binding.

"The arbitrator pointed out that TriMet's offer was illegal," Hansen says. "This is not a done issue with us."

Hansen says ATU leaders will keep poring over the ruling.

"We're going to go over this thing tooth and toenail over the weekend," he says.