Since Alon’s comment a few weeks ago that union work rules, not wages and benefits, are the real problem with labor unions at America’s transit authorities, I’ve been looking into the matter, which seems to be something that a lot of transit boosters don’t like to talk about. It’s an uncomfortable subject for two reason: 1) urban planners and unions have an ideological affinity, and 2) it’s hard to lobby for increased subsidies for transit when you admit that you’re making poor use of the money you already have.
But despite planners’ reticence to talk about the problem, it needs to be addressed. Throwing money around is what governments do best, and while it might be an easy solution to problems in the short run, the money is running out. Some will surely quibble that we can afford to raise taxes and do more deficit spending, especially for something as vital as transit, but whether or not that’s true, the fact is that voters are increasingly doubting that it is, and so politicians are going to become stingier about doling out money for transit.
Anyway, the most obvious area for savings is in actual wages and benefits, but many mainstream conservative and libertarian publications have written a lot about this issue, so I want to focus on just inefficient work rules. These are rules that are written into union contracts hashed out in a political process, and management doesn’t have the authority to overturn them. I found surprisingly little on the issue in the academic literature, but there’s plenty on it in newspapers, and so here’s a round-up of the major issues that I found with various American transit unions. The list is by no means comprehensive – either of all the cities that have these problems, or even of the different types of problems – and I encourage people to share any knowledge they have on the subject in the comments. (I’m also interested in something that I suspect Alon may know a thing or two about – international comparisons. Do the notoriously union-happy French have these same rules?)
So, without further ado…
1. Mandatory eight-hour workdays and no part-time hiring. This one may surprise some since the eight-hour workday is one of organized labor’s most prized achievements, and indeed it works out well with most workers. But transit isn’t “most work,” and trying to force an eight-hour workday on it is problematic. Transit service has huge peaks during the morning and evening rush hours, so when transit agencies are forced to schedule workers for eight-hour shifts (or longer with overtime), some people end up sitting around doing nothing for part of each day. With train and bus operators, this leads to them doing nothing during the middle of the day when there aren’t as many routes to run. (At San Francisco’s Muni, there are apparently six divisions where drivers spend more time waiting for assignments than they do actually working.) With maintenance workers, it means people being scheduled for work during at least one rush hour per shift, during which they don’t have access to tracks and can’t really work. And of course management often isn’t allowed to hire part-time workers to solve this problem. [Berkeley Planning Journal, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, NY Daily News, City Journal]
2. Seniority. Unions are run on seniority, and people who have been with the union longer often get to pick what work they do. A commenter from Portland explains:
Here in Portland, being a train operator (MAX or Streetcar – WES is staffed by employees of the shortline railroad on whose tracks the service run, not by TriMet employees) is considered a “senior” position; one that bus drivers with seniority may aspire for. Given that operation of trains is a different set of skills than operation of a bus – does this state of affairs make sense? By the same token, it’s frequently the case that experienced bus drivers (with lots of seniority) get to choose the easiest assignments – and frequently will pick suburban social-service routes; leaving the inexperienced drivers to haul crushloaded inner-city busses through rush hour traffic. Easier work assignments are frequently considered a “perk” of seniority. In the (nonunion) private sector one frequently observes the reverse – more experience and skill (and more pay) implies more difficult assignments. [Market Urbanism comment]
And then of course there are the infamous problems with escalator repair in DC’s Metrorail stations, which according to Unsuck DC Metro’s three–part series, are also the result of a seniority system. The “pick” system lets the most experienced employees choose which escalators they work on (or at least the general area), and they often pick the stations whose escalators are in least need of repair, leaving the really bad escalators to the less-experienced workers.
3. Tons of time off and little-to-no advanced notice required. Here’s someone who claims to be an operator with Muni, San Francisco’s public transit authority, who’s actually defending Muni workers’ sick day allowances:
I wonder where the one shift in six missed numbers come from. I am a Muni operator, and I certainly don’t miss that much time. I don’t have enough sick or vacation hours! I also wonder if that includes training/retraining time. The absenteeism rates are higher than for office workers, but there are some crucial reasons. As my wife (a high school teacher) pointed out, if she goes to work with a cold, she can still function. She can give her students desk work and try to relax a bit. If I work with a cold, an unexpected sneeze can kill someone. Working in transit ops requires full attention every second you’re moving. There isn’t an opportunity to zone out, massage your temples, take a coffee break. So our sick policies are a little looser than office workers are. How loose? I can call in sick three times a quarter (Jan-March, Apr-Jun, July-Sept, Oct-Dec), up to five days at a time, for a total of ten days a quarter without consequences. Mind you, I don’t have forty days of sick time a year! If I go over any of those limits, then I have to have doctor’s notes clearing me to come back to work and I can’t work any RDO (regular day off overtime). I have never been on the sick abuse list, and most of the operators I know who have been were there because of some family emergency.
We are expected to show up for work. All this reminds me of the miss-out kerfluffle from several years ago. (Muni operators don’t have to call in – they just don’t show up!) What the public wasn’t told was that I could (and still can) be charged with a miss-out if I am one minute late to work! I start today at 11:43 am. If I’m there at 11:44…
In addition to the unusually large amount of sick days, the way that the work rules handle operators missing work is problematic. Because workers don’t even have to notify management when they’re sick, the run is often delayed, and when someone is finally called in to do the job, they have to be paid overtime to do it. [Streetsblog SF]
4. Cross-utilization of labor not allowed. Some of the aforementioned problems (especially the constraints of the eight-hour work day) could be mitigated if workers were allowed to do other tasks, even menial ones, when they’re not needed with their primary job, but union contracts generally disallow this. Drivers can’t take tickets or work in information booths while they’re not driving, and maintenance workers can’t do either of those things or operate trains when they’re not able to work on the tracks. [Berkeley Planning Journal]
5. Overtime abuse. Overtime is already given out very liberally to unionized transit employees compared to private sector jobs, but one trick that they use at Muni to “monetize” their overtime is to call in sick on a day you’re scheduled and then work a day you’re not scheduled, for overtime pay, which you get even though you haven’t worked 40 hours that week. In the case of DC’s Metro employees, pensions are calculated based on the highest four years of income, which gives workers incentives to wrack up tons of overtime in order to boost their (already very generous) pensions. [SF Weekly, GGW]
…so, there you have it. Are there any work rules that I missed? How common are these rules – did I just find some isolated instances, or is this a deep, systemic problem?