Stewards in Miami-Dade’s transit union earn more than $1 million a year from the county, including a sizable portion of built-in overtime that Mayor Carlos Gimenez calls wasteful spending at the expense of taxpayers.
“They don’t even work for that overtime,” Gimenez said Wednesday. “This thing is ridiculous.”
His comments came hours after the Miami chapter of the Transport Workers Union published a full-page newspaper ad that cast Gimenez in a spacesuit, demanding he “Come Back to Earth” after attempting to double his current $150,000 pay by asking county commissioners to reverse a salary reduction he imposed on himself after taking office in 2011.
The escalating feud frames a larger fight over transit funding in Miami-Dade, with the two sides scrapping over relatively small amounts of money: The $1.3 million payroll assigned to 16 union stewards represents less than 1 percent of the transit agency’s $600 million operating budget and the mayor’s proposed $302,000 compensation package amounts to what a county with a $7.4 billion budget spends in roughly 30 minutes.
But with service cutbacks lengthening waits for Metrorail trains and county buses, passengers and politicians are demanding improvements in the county’s underfunded transit system. Gimenez points to union perks and protections as a central problem, while the union accuses him of blaming front-line workers for years of neglect of the transit system under his watch.
“Mass transit would be an even bigger operational and financial mess than it is now under Mayor Gimenez — if not for the valuable work performed by our stewards,” union president Clarence Washington said in a statement. “They assist members and front-line managers to solve problems so that riders can get to their destinations safely and as quickly as possible given the inadequate funding and equipment provided by the mayor.”
County commissioners should get a chance to referee the dispute later this year when board members consider a special magistrate’s recommendation on a new three-year contract for the transit union — including a provision that would dramatically decrease the amount of hours union stewards could earn on the county payroll.
Miami-Dade taxpayers subsidize union stewards in each of the county’s 10 unions, which represent police, garbage-truck drivers, firefighters, parks employees and others that work for the second-largest employer in Miami-Dade behind the public school system. But the transit union has far more stewards than do the other county labor groups, according to the report by Special Magistrate Mark Lurie.
Lurie intervened under the state’s labor laws after the union and the Gimenez administration reached an impasse over terms for a new contract after the last one expired in 2014. Union leaders blame a 2016 decision not to back Gimenez’s reelection, while the mayor cites union insistence that it be allowed to maintain its hefty roster of full-time stewards.
Miami-Dade says it paid union stewards across the bureaucracy about $3 million in 2016. The 2,900-member transit union accounts for only 11 percent of the county’s roughly 25,000 union members, but receives 40 cents of every dollar that Miami-Dade pays union stewards.
The $1.3 million paid transit stewards includes some actual work for the system, department spokeswoman Karla Damian said. The county could not provide a breakdown of how much was paid to stewards for work done beyond their union duties, but Damian said it would be paid as overtime.
Transit stewards were paid for 30,000 hours of union work by Miami-Dade that year, according to the magistrate’s report, which is far more than any other bargaining unit. The transit union’s steward pay amounted to 10 hours of union work for every member, compared to four hours of work for the union that represents sanitation workers, three hours for the airport union and less than one hour per member for the police union.
Lurie sided with the county’s request that those steward hours be reduced to 5,000 per year under a new contract. He based the recommendation in part on the union not being able to justify the 30,000-hour figure. “There appears to be no hourly tracking of how stewards are spending their time,” he wrote.
Union leaders note the steward system is allowed under the 2011 contract that Gimenez recommended as mayor. They also point to uniquely hostile conditions of working in Miami-Dade’s transit system, with bus drivers in particular facing bile and insults from passengers subject to chronic delays and faulty vehicles.
Washington pointed to stewards helping develop training programs for drivers on how to deal with passengers refusing to pay for bus trips, and on a series of driver interviews aimed at reducing bus collisions. He said transit workers sacrificed other benefits in favor of more union involvement in operations.
“Other unions have placed higher priorities elsewhere and instead of securing steward positions have received provisions increasing their take-home pay,” he said.
As union president, Washington is entitled to the top pay — including built-in overtime — available for county bus drivers. He earned about $84,000 last year, and figures released by the county show roughly 40 percent of that came from overtime. Many of Miami-Dade’s bus routes require drivers to work longer than eight hours a day, making the 50 percent pay boost that comes with overtime a built-in feature for that shift.
Union officials argue that if Miami-Dade hired more transit workers, it wouldn’t need so much overtime. Last year, the agency began outsourcing bus routes to a private operator to save money and reduce the schedules for some existing drivers. “We are reworking all of this,” Gimenez said, “and everybody’s overtime is going down.”