TriMet declares impasse in contract talks with union

TriMet declares impasse in contract talks with union

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — TriMet has declared an impasse in contract negotiations with the union that represents more than 2,000 of its workers.

The mass transit agency said Wednesday it took the action because 37 days of contract negotiations and two mediation sessions have produced no progress on the key issues of wages and health care costs.

The declaration moves the parties closer to binding arbitration. In that process, the sides each submit a final offer, and an arbitrator chooses one.

Drivers, mechanics and other members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 have been working without a contract since December 2012. State law prohibits them from striking, so there's no threat of Oregon's largest city grinding to a halt this summer.

"We've worked hard to negotiate a contract that is very competitive for our employees and retirees, but also fair to our riders and taxpayers," said Randy Stedman, TriMet's executive director of labor relations. "We're asking for our union employees and retirees to share in the cost of their health care benefits at a level comparable to TriMet's peer transit agencies."

The sides can continue to negotiate during the impasse, and both said they want to keep talking. They last met May 8, and no new dates have been set.

Bruce Hansen, ATU Local 757 president, said the decision to claim an impasse was rash.

"It is way too early for (Stedman) to declare this," he said. "I don't believe he's been bargaining in good faith. I think he's just been prolonging the process to where he can do exactly what he's done."

TriMet operates 79 bus routes and four MAX-light rail lines. A state audit released in January said the strained relationship between management and labor has hurt operations.

The audit also said the agency must get a handle on its unfunded liability to pay health benefits for current and future retirees.

The unfunded liability stood at $950 million as of April, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said. The union estimates it's about half that much.