Labor Department Meddles in California Transit Dispute

California public transit unions seem to have found a new, powerful bargaining tactic: If you don’t get your way in the legislature, threaten your state’s transportation funding. And it helps to have the administration in Washington on your side. California’s government and unions representing the state’s public transit workers are still negotiating, past the August 16 deadline imposed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for the state to give in to the unions’ demand to exempt transit workers from the state’s 2012 pension reform law or lose up to $1.6 billion in federal transportation funding.

After Governor Jerry Brown signed the pension reform into law last fall, the Teamsters and Amalgamated Transit Union filed complaints with the Labor Department, citing a provision in the Federal Transit Act that allows DOL to hold up federal transportation funds if states interfere with public transit workers’ ability to bargain collectively with their employers (transit authorities). California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern defended the state’s pension reform law in February, saying that it doesn’t weaken collective bargaining and “merely modifies” the retirement plans that public employers can offer.

The Labor Department is clearly out of line in trying to impose its own interpretation of the law by threatening California’s transportation funding, especially in determining something as fuzzy as when collective bargaining is “impeded.” If DOL continues to try to browbeat California into giving in to union demands, state officials should consider taking the matter to court, the proper venue for legal interpretation. Furthermore, there is no good reason why federal transit funds should be tied to collective bargaining or any other such conditions. Congress should take a close look at amending the Federal Transit Act, as proposed in H.R. 2537, introduced by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). (H/T Marc Scribner and Trey Kovacs.)