Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 22, 2013

It's a bad idea to treat customers badly and then turn around and ask for their support: transit union workers edition

The transit union (ATU Local 689) being worked up about DC's talk about moving to privatizing intra-city bus service (something that all the other area jurisdictions have done) and getting residents on their side, well I wonder if such a campaign will have any juice.  See "Metro union aims to block DC plan to privatize buses" from the Washington Post.

-- ATU publication, Ten Reasons Why Transit Privatization is Bad for the District
-- ATU publication, Circulator Privatization Map
-- ATU publication, I'm in with Local 689 campaign sign up

From the article:

Metro’s biggest union is trying to rally support from pro-union groups and local community organizations to stop the District from privatizing some of its bus routes now run by the transit agency.

The District’s Department of Transportation is seeking a private contractor to take over about two dozen bus routes that Metro runs for the city and the popular D.C. Circulator bus system.

Operating the buses would be part of a larger deal in which a private contractor would also build and operate a streetcar system in Anacostia and along the H Street corridor.

City officials said the move is meant to create a more unified, efficient transportation system under one contract that could be worth at least $1.5 billion over 30 years.

Although I will say that "one unified transportation system" has at least three different elements:

1. The scheduling system and the integration of service between separately operated bus services;

2. The branding and positioning and service;

3. The contract to operate it.

Customers don't care about the contract to operate it. They do want the system to be "legible" and understandable and easy to use.

But there is no question that the private operators, such as Veolia Transportation, which runs the local bus service in Baltimore (as opposed to the service run by MTA), and First Transit, which operates the DC Circulator bus system, as well as the various operators running transit systems for other Washington-area jurisdictions, would like to run the intra-city bus services in DC too.

I had an interesting conversation with a DDOT staffer a few weeks back who had worked for awhile in California.  We were talking about how strong the transit workers unions are in San Francisco and in the Bay Area too, BART suffered a strike a few weeks ago, see "Second BART strike looms as labor talks resume and workers lash out at management" from the San Jose Mercury News).

He made the point that one advantage of a strong transit workers union/movement is that they end up being a strong interest group in favor of the continued provision of transit funding.  That matters, especially in bad times.

(This came up in Phoenix too.  There the privately operated bus service wasn't meeting their service obligations and they racked up big fines.  The union struck, because the operator claimed that the fines got in the way of giving raises.  See the past blog entry "Sunday March 18 is International Bus Driver Appreciation Day."  The city changed the contract in favor of reduced penalties.)

Image from the article " Jeter Re-Elected at ATU 689" from the AFL-CIO Metro DC Labor Council website.

I've never had the sense that the transit workers unions representing WMATA transit workers have that much of an outreach orientation focused on the voters (a/k/a "taxpayers").  I think from time to time the unions do some polling, because I recall answering a phone survey on the subject of transit, funding, etc., that seemed to be a union-related endeavor, based on the tenor of the questions. 

But the other problem is that as far as worker-customer relations go, the unions go to the mat to protect workers who get reprimanded/fired for treating customers poorly.

And that doesn't make me all that willing to extend support to the Unions specifically.  Also see the past blog entry, "When the union label may be terrifying: transit edition," "Metro derailed by culture of complacence, incompetence, lack of diversity: ‘Inept get promoted, … capable get buried’" from the Washington Times, and "ATU Local 689 answers your questions" from GGW.

It's like the police officers union in DC.  They are busy all the time bashing management in their public statements (and they must miss the Examiner, which was a convenient mouthpiece for them when it published as a daily newspaper), but I don't feel like the union advocates for crime reduction and public safety in a concerted way.

The transit union has justified poor attitudes of their workers as a result of bad and oppressive management.  Well, then advocate for a better work environment in order to better treat customers, who ultimately, are responsible for the employment of both management and workers.

Until then, it's hard for me to be motivated to go out of my way to be supportive, because it is rare to see the Union take a position of being pro-customer.

THAT BEING SAID, I am the first to say that driving a bus is one of the hardest jobs there is.

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At 10:13 PM, Blogger kob said...

Privatizing parts of the bus system makes me more than a little nervous. You see this all the time in a lot of low level public sector jobs. Private companies make their money through lower wages, working conditions that can foster turnover, and corner cutting. I am also unconvinced about DC's ability to manage this contract.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't disagree with you. I should have written more about the difference in branding between the circulator bus and the Metrobus.

I actually think that Metrobus is potentially a strong brand.

The issue is do jurisdictions think that all intra-jurisdictional bus service is only by residents and they "understand" the system and they don't have to spend much in the way of providing service, marketing, and legibility to non-residents.

From the standpoint of different liveries, it's cool to have all the separate systems. But from the standpoint of "legibility" I think it becomes more and more difficult, even if there is an integrated payment system (SmarTrip card). ... and to WMATA, MWCOG, MTA and BMC's credit, the SmarTrip card and the CharmCard of the Baltimore area are integrated into the same system as well.

At 7:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think too the big difference long term must be "pensions." I can't imagine pensions are as good for privately operated systems as compared to governmental.

At 8:41 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of pensions (and health care) yes you are probably broadly right. My impression is drivers for First transit aren't expecting a job-for-life which is what ATU wants.

You have the obamacare 29 hour limit as well, although it is hard to imagine a bus driver with ony 29 hours a week. Maybe the commuter bus drivers.

In terms of pensions, I suspect a large part is just math. Metro has a very restrictive contract based on the court case where they are overfunding. A private company can get away with lower amonts and hope investments keep it up.

(honestly, if unions had any balls they'd pass a law saying their pension funds can only invest in the US. Likewise with 501(c)(3) endowments).

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think you're right, it's about career vs. temp. job. Maybe.

2. riffing on your last point, in the book Straphangers, Taras Grescoe has a chapter on how the big contractors in this space, like Veolia, Keolis, etc., derived from state-owned operators in countries like France.

Of course BAA is the old British Airports Authority, and there is a company that has been trying to get into the North American bikeshare space called Servco that grew out of a govt. operation in the UK. (Then again, so did "GSI"--Government Services Inc.--the food service contractor in the DC area.)

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Richard Branson has made numerous fortunes taking formerly public ventures private and throwing out sops to customers.

(Imagine Virgin bus: AC that works, clean, and friendlier drivers. And just a small premium)

the businss risk from such operations is low, and if you can get the financing and the political connections to get the contract, you're gold.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

p.s. there are many WMATA station personnel (presumably managers) and bus drivers who are nice, and these people are also part of the Transit Workers Union.

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Good article in the post about Virginia cutting part time workers hours and pushing them into obamacare. Firewalled, and only of slight interest.

In terms of WMATA employees and "nice" there certainly are a few, but they are hard to find. Yes, they have a hard job (bus drivers double that). Yes, customers are a pain. Yes, management is bad and screwing with them (which is why the union is militant).

(I have noticed that generally metrobus drivers are much better at their jobs than circulator drivers, but circulator drivers are friendlier.)

Also, see Jetblue, which deliberately set out to hire peoplle who didn't work in other airlines since they had attitude problems.


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