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Portland Unions as Public Transit Activists

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"IN PORTLAND, families spend 31 percent of their income on transportation. And over the past decade, TriMet has raised fares by 70 percent."

That's the shocking stat Radhika Fox, a nationally known social-equity advocate, shot out at a packed Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 hall last Wednesday, April 6. The union's executive director, Ron Ruggiero, has called for a citywide campaign among unions to push the city's largest employers to offer free TriMet passes to employees (which some big employers, like AT&T and PacifiCorp, already do).

TriMet, which gets 55 percent of its funding from payroll taxes, sells annual all-zone passes at $968 a pop. In this Q&A, Ruggiero and Sally Glazier, an eight-year veteran of Legacy Good Samaritan hospital's cafeteria, talk about why unions should fill Portland's transit activist void.

MERCURY: How do you get to work, Sally?

SALLY GLAZIER: I generally take the MAX from Hillsboro. It takes about an hour. I don't drive because of the price of gas and parking. When I first started working at Legacy, I paid $2 a month for a TriMet pass. Now it's $46 a month.

RON RUGGIERO: As recently as 2005, Legacy covered the cost of transit passes and only charged members $6 a month. But then Legacy told us they wanted to get out of the transit business, so they covered up to $20 a month, and all future increases go to employees.

How often does transit come up in bargaining talks?

RUGGIERO: It always comes up. We have to hold the large employers to a higher standard. They should offer free or reduced transit to their employees. When Legacy made the cut, we saw a 30 percent reduction in members using the transit pass. We represent 700 workers at Legacy, and as TriMet has cut the routes on nights and weekends, we have folks who wind up having to wait hours just to commute to work. We think this is a really good moment for a broader community campaign.

GLAZIER: Transportation to and from work has become really expensive. It's a hardship. Half the people I work with use transit because of where they live, and they've cut from many of the routes.

Would businesses get anything out of offering free transit?

RUGGIERO: I imagine coming out of negotiations with a joint press announcement that this contract is going to take X number of cars off the road. Also, it's a good benefit for low-income workers whose transportation options are limited. It's no secret that in Portland we have a lot of service sector jobs that don't pay very well. We should make sure we have a transit system that meets the needs of its workers.

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