Time for union concessions

By Editorial Board

On Nov. 15, the Chicago Transit Authority Board approved a $1.24 billion budget for 2012 that is $66 million less than the 2011 budget. CTA President Forrest Claypool deserves credit for finally shrinking costs in an age when government spending at all levels in Illinois is out of control. But the budget relies on $80 million worth of work rules concessions from labor unions, which have so far been vehemently reluctant to budget on anything. The situation between the CTA and its unions has spiraled down to a childish shouting match in a public forum between Claypool and Robert Kelly, Local 308 president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

It’s time for both sides to grow up and cut a deal. Claypool has until July 1, 2012 to get concessions out of the unions. After that, fares will go up and services will be slashed to a degree that Claypool says will put the 2010 cuts to shame. That’s bad news for riders, who will pay more to wait longer for trains and buses, and for CTA employees, who will be subject to harsh layoffs.

The best-case scenario would be for Kelly and the unions to agree to work rule changes. It’s understandable that unions all over the nation have refused to move their bargaining line in what they see as a fight for their lives. But union leaders like Kelly and Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis have been doing their causes no good in the court of public opinion by refusing to budge on reasonable requests.

It isn’t as if Claypool is suggesting taking away the unions’ right to barter for wages, as happened in Wisconsin. The rule changes the president is seeking should not be the center of a contentious debate. Abuse of absenteeism will cost the CTA $40 million this year alone to pay employees to sit on standby in case others don’t show up, which a Tribune investigation proved to be a frequent occurrence. Work rules require the agency to pay employees to drive other employees to their work sites. The rules also state that three CTA workers must do a safety check when it only requires one. Think all of that is ridiculous? The CTA must also keep drivers on the payroll six months after they get a DUI.

Kelly has called Claypool’s budget “irresponsible.” Yes, it was irresponsible of Claypool to build a budget assuming that he’ll get a favorable contract in six months when negotiations can take years. But the truly irresponsible move was for Kelly to declare contract negotiations a nonstarter. Public employee union leaders need to understand that in times of ever-constricted budgets and the threat of private competition, they need to be more flexible and open to compromise in order to survive.