PAT Retiree and Employee Concessions Are Critical

Right on cue, the Port Authority has rolled out the latest doomsday scenario of service cuts and layoffs. No doubt the huge projected budget shortfall, if unaddressed, will require enormous cutbacks. But as sure as robins returning in the spring, there is no talk of addressing the underlying causes of the financial disaster that PAT has become.

Whipping up rider and business sentiment in an effort to persuade Harrisburg to increase its subsidy-despite the looming $700 million state revenue shortfall for the current budget year-is the overused and cynical modus operandi. Where are the brave elected leader voices demanding that retirees with their enormous legacy costs and current employees with their $25 per hourjobs with Cadillac benefits and efficiency killing work rules make some sacrifice to save jobs and bus service?

That’s not how the game is played in Pennsylvania. Rather, it’s lobby for more money to feed the voracious maw of employees, past and present. And when Governors and County Execs manage to get more money from the state as happened so many times in the past, especially under the previous Governor, what is the lesson learned by employees and retirees? Hold out, make no concessions, more money will be coming from the state or Feds. If the state blinks in the current round, the unions will have their convictions reinforced and the game of chicken will be repeated next year.

The state should set an amount of subsidy per rider, adjusted for inflation of no more than the 2011 level and keep it there permanently.

On the other hand, the state shares a lot of responsibility for PAT’s financial condition by caving in to union demands in the past, by refusing to eliminate the right to strike and being far too deferential to requests for funding for money pits such as the North Shore Connector and by permitting the monopoly status of PAT to continue when competition was sorely needed. It can begin to take some responsibility for its failure to prevent the problems that have being brewing for years. Change the law so the Port Authority can declare bankruptcy-the only way it can deal with its massive and growing legacy costs. Appoint an independent board including several non-Allegheny County members to oversee the organization. Remove the monopoly to allow other carriers access to the County and eliminate the transit workers right to strike.

In the meantime, concessions must be forthcoming and permanent. Some additional monetary help might be granted on a temporary basis if the retirees and employees make a strong, good faith effort. But the additional help must be accompanied by other legislative actions including those recommended above. The Commonwealth needs to take bold steps to deal with PAT and not kick this can down the road again.

A Regional Transit Authority: Will Consolidation Be Better?

Alluding to the dire financial forecast that threatens the Port Authority (PAT) in FY2013 a candidate for Allegheny County Chief Executive recently offered the idea that it would perhaps be better to have a regional transit agency, much like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Agency (SEPTA) that serves the opposite corner of the Commonwealth, handle transit operations here.


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An Opening Salvo in PAT Negotiations

PAT board and management proposes, Amalgamated Transit Union opposes and disposes. No real surprise as news of a contract (the four year deal for PAT drivers and mechanics expires June 30, 2012) contains some very tough proposals: a wage freeze, no post-employment health coverage for new hires, higher contributions for pensions, and possibly a defined contribution plan for new employees.

It has happened before: in 2005 there was strong talk about outsourcing a percentage of PAT operations and maintenance to the private sector. Six years later it still takes the abandonment of routes and permission of the board to compete. Note too that the 2005 proposal also talked of a wage freeze and higher contributions toward benefits.

The current contract was supposedly a good thing for the Authority in terms of legacy costs, but no immediate savings were achieved. After negotiators were whisked away to the nation’s capital (the contract even included language that the parties would work toward a nationalized health care plan) the contract that developed segmented the workforce into different tiers and assigned health care benefits and contribution amounts accordingly. We wrote in a Brief right after that contract was awarded that "we will be told that the hammer on legacy costs will ‘really fall’ when 2012 comes around." Here we are.

Shuttle Pass

In a repeat of this past weekend’s playoff game, the Port Authority (PAT) does not know if it will have enough drivers volunteer to operate shuttles for the championship game on Sunday. The transit union denies there was any orchestrated plan to cause the shortage of drivers, but noted "a lot of people would rather sit at home and watch the game than volunteer to work an extra shift."

True, and a lot of other people might like to make a living driving a bus or a shuttle without interference from the County’s one-stop-transit-shop. Just two years ago the transit union opposed a plan to permit Lenzner Coach Lines from operating a shuttle between Station Square, Downtown, and the North Side. The head of the union said that "a Lenzner shuttle would take jobs away from his union brethren and leave riders paying more than they would on a PAT bus".

Could there be a better case for removing PAT’s mass transit monopoly? PAT management cannot assign people to drive shuttles and must depend on volunteers. And no other company or regional bus agency can step up and offer service because they are not permitted to do so in Allegheny County. Efficient transit service is subject to the whims of the transit union. If they want to drive they will, if they don’t want someone else to drive, they will stop them.

What a disgrace that the unions have driven PAT into a financial and gross inefficiency ditch and are still holding the Authority up to ridicule.

Here’s an idea for the County Executive. Rather than trying to stand in the way of court ordered re-assessments, appoint some PAT board members who will take a harder line with the unions and then go to Harrisburg and ask for the legislative remedies the Allegheny Institute has been advocating for years. Eliminate the right of transit workers to strike, remove the PAT monopoly, and order the outsourcing of service.

Allegheny County: National Capital for Teacher Strikes?

As we have noted on several occasions, Pennsylvania leads the nation in teacher strikes and has done so for at least a decade accounting for over half of all such strikes in the country. One would think that in a recessionary environment, the number of strikes would fall dramatically or cease altogether. And they appear to have done so everywhere but in Allegheny County.

Two strikes this school year have already occurred, recently in Allegheny Valley and currently in Bethel Park. Moon district teachers have authorized a strike and appear on the verge of walking out. Teachers and their union heads have apparently decided that it is better to take the strikes in the fall rather than waiting until spring. Because of the 180 day instruction rule, the strikes typically cannot last as long once the holidays and spring break days are utilized. So, to inflict the longest possible torment on the community, it is far better for the unions to strike before Thanksgiving and certainly before Christmas.

But not to worry, no athletic events will be cancelled during the strike, revealing an ultimate truth. Parents and the community will put up with disruption of their lives and student education but they will not tolerate the cancellation of football games or band practice. Not even the teacher unions with all their political clout will take on the outrage that would come at them if a football game had to be forfeited.

Still, the greater point to be made here is the notion that since no other strikes have been launched this school year in Pennsylvania and since Pennsylvania is the strike capital of the nation, it is reasonable to conclude that Allegheny County is now the epicenter of teacher strikes in the U.S. and, excluding France and Greece, the world.

How wonderful to be the best at something.

One Strike Ends, Another Begins

Taxpayers, families with school age children, and students hoping to attend classes in two Allegheny County districts are likely exhibiting different reactions today. In the northeast corner of the County the Allegheny Valley School District just ended its walkout today.

It began on September 16th but the end of the teacher strike does not mean the dispute is over. The impasse now goes to non-binding arbitration under Act 88, the law governing collective bargaining for school employees. Since that law also prohibits the school from hiring people to teach who have not worked at the school for the previous twelve months, it was up to administrators to keep classes going for seniors who hope to graduate on time. "Parents were very grateful. There were phone calls and e-mails from quite a few parents" said one administrator.

Gratitude will likely be in short supply in the south hills Bethel Park School District, however. Teachers in that district announced that they intend to go on strike this coming Tuesday because of unsatisfactory negotiations on a contract that expired at the end of June. Like Allegheny Valley and other districts that have seen public education interrupted by a work stoppage, the teachers’ union there is looking for "a fair and equitable settlement while maintaining the quality of and access to our health care, and to reduce class size to provide a better learning environment for our students".

Allegheny County holds the distinction of being the only county in the state to see a teacher strike thus far this school year according to the PA School Boards Association.

Merger Hopes Meet Union Reality

The product of the Commonwealth’s first voluntary school district merger-Central Valley District in Beaver County-could be headed for a work stoppage. That’s right: the district that had to deal with how to align schools, levy and collect taxes, and come up with a unified name and mascot apparently didn’t pay enough attention to its workforce. As the head of the PSEA stated "our members want to see this merger work. They also need fair and reasonable contracts."

And in Pennsylvania those members can walk off the job without punishment and shut the school system down. With issues of vacancies, transfers, work hours, and health care in contention, it is not much of a stretch to think that there are hurdles with how to align the separate work units that existed in the previously un-merged districts. Recall that is a recent blog we pointed out how the high school would have two principals.

Merger advocates-whether they be in the camp of combining school districts, municipalities, or counties and municipalities-take note: public sector unions are not an issue to take lightly in a proposed consolidation. Even the task force charged with studying a Pittsburgh-Allegheny County merger sidestepped the thorny issue, noting that "personnel costs often rise when two different pay and benefit systems are integrated, because, most typically, employees move to the more generous compensation and benefits package". Think that dynamic is not at work in Central Valley?