Bustration musings

Since the beginning of September  and the cutback in service by Saskatoon Transit, and then the complete shutdown of transit via the City of Saskatoon’s lockout of its transit employees, there are a bunch of tidbits rattling around in my head that I’m just not sure what to do with. So I’m just going to let them out into the free world and see what happens. Thanks to Jordon Cooper’s Contextless Thoughts for provoking the ramblings you are about to endure.

  • Saskatoon Transit is woefully short staffed when it comes to mechanics. Apparently the City was already paying “market supplements” to attract and retain mechanical staff because the wages per the previous contract were outpaced by rising wages in the private sector. At one point the City claimed that the lack of a contract was inhibiting their ability to attract and retain mechanical staff, and this was a factor in the inability to get the fleet fully operational for the beginning of September. Then out of the blue, or rather, after the lockout, the City said that this had no bearing on the fleet’s operational level.

  • I’ve heard some suggest that the maintenance of the bus fleet should be contracted out, and this would be less expensive. Firstly I don’t see how. If the City has to pay “market supplements to maintain the current, woefully inadequate number of mechanics they have, then it seems obvious that the cost of a private sector mechanics are going to be not dissimilar from the cost of employee mechanics. Secondly, Saskatoon Transit did send buses out to the private sector for maintenance and repair, and even the combined efforts of the City’s own personnel and the private sector could not get the fleet fully operational by the beginning of September. That makes me wonder if the private sector would even have the capacity to service and maintain the entire fleet.
  • There continues to be some debate over which party (the City or the ATU) is being “unreasonable” or “more unreasonable”. Some seem to feel that the buses need to be running, and if that means that the ATU has to bend over the negotiating table, so be it. As much as I want/need Transit to resume operations, I have a really hard time respecting this position.
  • Based only on the information that is available publicly, it appears to me the only party being intransigent (inTRANSITgent?) is the City. Their entire negotiating stance appears to be “here is our only offer, F you ATU”.  The ATU on the other hand seems to have presented several offers to the City. They were willing to accept a modest wage increase of 10% over 4 years  (about 2.4% annually), provided there were no changes to their pension. Alternately they were willing to accept the pension changes in exchange for 22% wage increase over 5 years (about 4.06% annually). Now you know why the City uses the big 22% in their press releases. It sounds a lot more “unreasonable” than 2.4% vs. 4.06%.
  • Frankly I don’t, and never did understand why Access Transit operators get paid substantially less than regular transit drivers. That combined with the part time hours that they get must result in significant turnover of staff, in a position that would benefit greatly from having stable, well trained, and experienced staff. If the care and attention Access Transit provides to my neighbour is any indication, they deserve to be paid the same as regular transit drivers, if not more.
  • Based on the information that is publicly available the concerns expressed by the ATU have merit. The actuarial valuation as of December 31, 2012 appears to show a shortfall in one of the solvency tests required by the Pensions Act. It’s now closing in on two years since that valuation. Much has changed since then. Virtually all pension plans in Canada have seen a significant recovery in asset values since then. If the plan has a surplus, then there is no reason to implement the changes proposed by the City. The 2013 financial statements show a dramatic swing from a near $15 million dollar deficit to a $54 million dollar surplus. While this is not the same as an actuarial valuation, it is a clear indicator that there was a significant and profound change in the financial health of the pension plan. For the City to continue to push for, and City Council to pass changes to the pension plan based on out of date information smacks of taking advantage of the 2012 valuation solely because they can, not because it is right or necessary.
  • Now that Council has passed the Bylaw to make changes to the pension, those amendments must be submitted (by the pension trustees) to the Superintendent of Pensions. Along with an updated actuarial valuation. Since an updated valuation must be available already anyway, why didn’t council base their decision on current information?
  • If the changes to the pension plan are so important for the long term health of the plan, then it would seem penny wise, pound foolish for the City not to consider ATU’s offer. Ceding to ATU’s wage increase demand in exchange for agreement on the pension changes would seem to be a reasonable compromise. Which is more critically important for the long term? The pension, or the next 4-5 years of wage expenses? Wages that haven’t been keeping pace with the private sector. Low-balling wages will only exacerbate staff recruitment and retention problems.
  • The 22% demand by ATU would bring their wages up to a level slightly less than the western Canadian average for other transit workers. The City uses the same type of wage comparisons when setting wages for non-unionized employees, managers, and even police. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Right?
  • I’ve attended one of the meetings of the Bus Riders of Saskatoon (so far) and there has been considerable debate over whether that organization should pick a side in this labour dispute or not. I have grave reservations about picking a side because I worry that might inhibit the group from being an effective and persuasive advocate for transit improvement in the future. I hope that they can navigate this labour dispute successfully, and become a true force advocating for Transit users in the future. While the lockout is extremely disruptive to people’s day to day lives, it pales in comparison to the other problems Transit has had for years and will continue to have, unless there is significant change in the attitudes of the City administration, City Council, and the culture of the city as a whole.
  • The changes proposed by the City and passed by City Council appear to limit the City’s liability with respect to future shortfalls in the pension plan. While this sounds good to the taxpayer, it is contrary to the Pension Act. So either the administration knows this and didn’t tell City Council, or Council knows this and passed the bylaw to make changes to the pension plan anyway.
  • If changes to the pension plan are actually necessary to deal with a legitimate funding shortfall, why are the changes passed by City Council permanent? The contribution rates rise to 9.4% (up to YMPE) and 10% (over YMPE) by 2016. But not just for that year. For every year in the future. If the true purpose of the increase in contribution rates was to take care of what is likely a temporary funding shortfall, why not revert back to the current contribution rates? Provided the next actuarial valuation (which will be as of December 31, 2015) shows the plan is no longer in a shortfall position.
  • When the next actuarial valuation is done in 2016 (as of December 31, 2015), what happens if that valuation shows that the changes City Council passed to the pension plan were unnecessary? Will City Council reverse those changes? Not bloody likely.
  • Up until a few weeks ago, going to the ATU website would get you nowhere unless you were a member and could login. Now there is quite a bit of information available to the public including updates to their members, correspondence between the City, unions, and the pension trustees etc. and sheds some light on the dispute, at least from the perspective of the ATU. The City does not seem to be nearly as open. The lack of openness is what leads me to ask many of the questions I pose above. The City is not doing themselves any favors by doing this. It makes me wonder “what don’t they want me to know”. If the City’s position is a strong one, backed by facts, I’d be the first to call out the ATU for being “unreasonable”. But the City’s “trust us, we know what’s good for you” attitude is not something I am tolerant of.  Ronald Reagan said it, “trust, but verify”. The City has demonstrated to me in the past that I cannot trust them. Therefore I need to verify.

 

Comments are welcome, and if you can shed any light on anything above, please do. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”, right?

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