TriMet, in its ongoing dispute with a union over a now-expired contract, got some bad news today: it was found in violation of Oregon law.

But the transit agency's usually proactive communications arm hadn't broadcast the development tonight. The Amalgamated Transit Union, TriMet's constant foe, did—just after 8 p.m.

The Oregon Employment Relations Board, considering arguments from both groups, today ruled [PDF] that TriMet had crossed the law a number of ways in carrying out an arbitrator's ruling over a labor contract with the ATU, according to documents sent out by the union. One member of the board, writing as a minority, thought the agency had flouted additional rules.

The upshot is that the financially imperiled TriMet is now likely hamstrung in its attempt to reclaim $6.8 million it says it shouldn't have had to pay in employee benefits from 2009 to 2012. And it seems the agency will have to kick ever-increasing amounts into a number of funds it had been trying to stop paying altogether.

It's almost midnight as I'm writing this and—as I say—TriMet hasn't released a statement about the fresh ruling, which is the latest turn in a twisting, maddening fight between agency and the ATU. The union, for its part, released only a brief statement saying it is closely reviewing the statement and crowing it was "cleared of any wrongdoing."

Update, Saturday, 7 pm:

TriMet released a statement earlier today unsurprisingly at odds with the ATU's take. Rather than highlight findings it violated the law, the agency celebrated the ruling, saying it won "most elements," and could largely proceed on its contract proposal.

“This ruling reaffirms our contract award and allows us to continue realigning health care costs with the market and, in turn, begin putting those savings into service,” TriMet Executive Director of Labor Relations and Human Resources Randy Stedman said in the statement.

Original post:

The fight is complex, but goes back to TriMet and the ATU's attempt to reach a new contract agreement beginning in 2009. That stalled, with many claims made to and fro, and the matter eventually came before an arbitrator, who in 2012 considered each group's "Last Best Offer." The arbitrator, David Gaba, had to choose one of the proposals, and in July 2012 picked TriMet's.

While the union and transit agency were at war, TriMet had continued to operate under their previous benefits agreement. But, with its fresh proposal newly legitimized, it set about trying to recoup expenses it says it should have never paid (that is, if it's proposal were promptly enacted in 2009).

The ATU instructed members not to comply.

TriMet also moved union employees into a different pension plan—one more in line with what the agency's non-union workers have. The ATU had qualms with that, too. And TriMet announced it would stop payments into two funds, would no longer pay union reps to work grievance cases (which are VERY prevalent at TriMet) and was changing how it calculated retiree benefits.

In response to all this, the ATU filed a nine-count Unfair Labor Practices charge in August 2012. TriMet filed one of its own the following month, saying the union was obstinately holding up binding arbitration. The matter was decided today.

A majority of the three-member Employment Relations Board found TriMet had violated the law in two ways: by switching up its proposal for employee benefits changes too late in the arbitration process, and by attempting to stop paying into two employee funds— the Employee Assistance Program and the Recreation Trust Fund (a third member of the board actually thought TriMet's transgressions were greater).

The board dismissed the rest of the ATU's charges against TriMet, and all of TriMet's complaints against the ATU.

It will be interesting to see how the ruling—on a contract that technically doesn't exist anymore, if it ever really did at all—shapes up. Meanwhile, TriMet and the ATU are scheduled later this year to begin talks on a new contract.

Should be fun.