February 23, 2010

CHICAGO (Feb. 23)—Crews on Metra’s busiest commuter-train routes got a nasty shock last December when they learned of a management plan to reduce crew overtime, deadheading and in some cases actual assignments.

“Metra called us into a meeting and said they were going to do some belt-tightening and cost-cutting—cut a number of assignments in each district,” said UTU Ill. Legislative Board Vice Chairman John O’Brien. “They didn’t ask for employee input. They just told us what they were going to do and said the changes were ‘not open to negotiation.’”

The suddenness of Metra’s announcement left the Legislative Board puzzled and the crews offended. In the past, Metra had been good about giving the union plenty of advance notice of any proposed changes to work rules or operating practices. It had often accepted union commentary and suggestions. But not this time.

“Metra’s internal memo was dated November 11 and was presented to UTU leaders in December,” said UTU Ill. Legislative Director Bob Guy. “The changes it called for were scheduled to take effect in January. Obviously, there was an uproar among the crews.”

And with good reason.

“Forty-three assignments would have been reduced to 40,” O’Brien said. “Eleven-hour jobs with overtime would have been converted to 9-hour jobs without overtime. Pilot jobs were to be cut and the work done by road crews.”

What it all came down to was lower pay and more members reporting and marking off at odd hours for less pay.

“The crews would be working at all times of day and night, with radical disruptions to the dependable scheduling they were accustomed to and to the process that had worked for decades.” O’Brien said. “Most of what Metra was proposing was not a violation of our contract, but it would have been very detrimental and disruptive to our members.”

At issue was what Metra and the union call “combinations,” the precise number and sequence of inbound trips, outbound trips and deadheading needed to provide each crew member with a Basic Day plus any overtime due while providing the public with convenient train schedules.

“The problem is, most of the work is concentrated within two rush hours,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to turn that into a standard 8-hour workday. There has to be some downtime, and you start running into Hours of Service limits.”

Issues were most acute on the Electric District, Metra’s busiest line with over 70 daily round trips.

“Electric had drastic, dramatic cuts—just devastating,” said O’Brien, a 25-year Electric employee who now works the Rock Island District.

“To minimize deadheading expense they decided to list two crews on one train, thus claiming no deadhead existed.”

Metra figured the changes would save it nearly $500,000 a year, a saving the publicly owned railroad could not afford to forgo in a stubborn recession that has reduced the state’s revenue stream from taxes and fares.

But O’Brien had an idea: What if Metra were to let a team of employees go over their own combinations and find out whether the needed economies could be achieved without the drastic changes to schedules and overtime cuts? Perhaps the employees would find a better way.

“Who knows these jobs better than the people on the ground?” O’Brien said. “There are certain realities you just can’t grasp when you’re sitting at a desk—even if you’ve got a lot of data in front of you.”

At O’Brien’s request, Guy called Metra President Phil Pagano and suggested that the employees be allowed to review and improve Metra’s proposal.

“One of the things I noted in talking with Phil was that the UTU and Metra have always enjoyed an effective, collaborative relationship, and this sudden, unexplained departure from it was being interpreted by our rank-and-file as a slap in the face,” Guy said. “To Phil’s credit, after a couple of calls he agreed to get Metra management involved with our UTU local leadership in order to head off a clash.”

But it wasn’t the union leadership alone that did the heavy lifting. O’Brien and General Committee #721 Chairman Barry Abbott pulled together a 10-member committee of Local #1290 members to assess the Metra proposal. Local President Jeff Fields, Sec. Treas. T.L. Warner, and local chairmen Brooks Warner and Jessie Turner joined members Gerald Bennett, Anthony Bruce, Beth Birkenfeld, Arnold Maxey, Drucilla Jordan and Marco Garzon in going over Metra’s proposed changes. Their job was to scrutinize Metra’s proposed combinations to see whether the planners had overlooked potential savings that could be achieved without imposing major income cuts or job distress on employees.

“We told them, ‘This is Metra’s stance,” O’Brien said. “’Our job is to try to protect our members interests while at the same time trying to find the savings the railroad is looking for.’”

“They worked day and night on it,” Guy said. Both Guy and O’Brien stressed that the work done by the committee was just plain hard—a laborious, tedious Rubik’s Cube exercise that reviewed each combination to ascertain whether one or more of its members could be fitted into another combination to produce a schedule that didn’t penalize the employees and created a more efficient outcome for Metra.

And they did it.

“Nobody was furloughed and the disruptive changes never took place,” O’Brien said. “By re-arranging assignments they eliminated three combinations—and the missing trips were absorbed by the remaining 40. Metra didn’t have to cut its reliable service or the number of trips, but it achieved almost all the cost savings it was looking for. The remaining employees had to work a tad longer—but who minds a little overtime? The administrative costs per employee came down. Working from Metra’s figures we were able to avoid the drastic changes that our members feared the most, while at the same time providing the carrier the savings it was looking for. A savings, by the way, that could protect our members jobs in the years to come.”

“The amazing thing about it is that what the Local #1290 members did is not extraordinary,” Guy said. “The people on the ground really do know their work better than most managers do—and better than the union leadership does. I saw some of those combinations, and it all looked like a bunch of hieroglyphics to me. But the members understood it, and they knew what to do with it. That’s why work generally gets done better and at lower cost when employees have a voice in the design of their jobs.

“In the end, both sides were able to sit down and explain to each other the rationale behind their thoughts,” Guy said. “Which resulted in benefits for each party, and that is what communication and negotiation are all about.”

The problem, Guy said, is that most employees in most industries are not unionized and thus have no vehicle to help them get involved in the way their tasks are assigned.

“That’s why we need strong unions,” he said. “And that’s why the UTU is so strong and so effective. We don’t have to rely solely on our leaders, because so many of our members have the skills and commitment to shoulder their share of the load. I congratulate every member of UTU Local # 1290 for an outstanding job.”