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Cap Metro Contracting: Watson and Wyatt at Odds

Transit agency and labor union still renegotiating

By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., April 20, 2012

Cap Metro CEO Linda Watson
Cap Metro CEO Linda Watson
Photo by John Anderson

It's been two long, dark years since the Sunset Advisory Commission issued its now-infamous report taking Capital Metro to task for mismanaging its finances, failing to keep down costs, and rushing into commuter rail without sufficient planning. But tomorrow may just find the transit agency dragging itself back into the light.

At a special-called meeting of the Cap Metro Board of Directors on Friday, transit authority staff will make their long-awaited recommendations on contractors for fixed-route bus and door-to-door paratransit services. If the board approves those recommendations at its regular meeting Monday, Cap Metro bus drivers and mechanics could meet their new bosses as early as Wednes­day. And by Aug. 19, those new contractors will, at long last, begin operating bus service.

"This is probably the biggest decision our board will ever make," says Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson, who was in the process of being interviewed for her present position when the sunset review was released, and who has served her entire tenure under its shadow.

But even as Cap Metro is set to step into the brave new world of privately contracted services, leaders of the union representing the workers who will be changing employers as a result, Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, are concerned that Cap Metro management may be trying to "bust up" their union by forcing it into a contract it doesn't want. Doing so, they say, would merely be a continuation of the agency's attempts to right Cap Metro's fiscal ship on the backs of the workers and under the cover of State Senate Bill 650 – which gave Cap Metro the option of either making all employees of labor contractor StarTran direct employees of Capital Metro (thereby taking away their rights of collective bargaining and striking) or requiring all those employees to go to work for a private contractor (all but ensuring lower wages and fewer benefits in the future).

"I ain't seen a contract out there we can be happy with," says ATU President Jay Wyatt. "But we'll work with whoever they hire." Despite Wyatt's concerns, Watson says she's been focused on improving union/management relations ever since she started at Cap Metro, and that maintaining workers' rights is a priority as the agency moves forward. "One of my first priorities was repairing Cap Metro's relationship with the union," Watson says. "I met with them early on and told them I wanted to improve trust and communication. The core terms of the contracts we'll be signing with our contractor or contractors are that StarTran employees will be guaranteed the same wages and offered similar benefits, and that everyone who has a job now will have a job when we make the transition. The board was very adamant that we protect those things. We were also adamant that they would recognize the union and collective bargaining."

In other words, employees will be getting paid the same wages they were before. Which raises a question: If bringing costs down and balancing the books were the primary goals of the Sunset Commission and SB 650, what's really changing if Cap Metro bus drivers and mechanics are getting paid the same salaries and receiving the same benefits and a private contractor is getting paid to run the show? Won't costs go up rather than down?

"Historically, it has not been more expensive to go to a private contractor," says Wat­son. "What they will end up doing is a two-tiered wage structure, possibly with benefits. New employees will have lower wages and possibly a longer progression to get to the top, but the current workforce will be protected in terms of wages and benefits. There may be some savings up front, but for the most part your savings will come later, when there's attrition and turnover. It's pretty much understood the new contractor will negotiate the two-tiered system."

That's news to Wyatt, who says he's never heard the two-tiered pay scale system mentioned in discussions with the transit authority. He's surely never assented to it. "A two-tiered system isn't something I'd agree to, and this is the first time I'm hearing about it," Wyatt says. "It sounds like Cap Metro is dictating to the contractor what to negotiate with us. We never talked about that. That's interfering with negotiations. That's illegal. No, no, no, that's them interfering."

In fact, says Wyatt, the only issue Cap Met­ro can make suggestions about in the union's negotiations with any private contractor is in the area of the pension plan – another area, he says, where the transit authority board and its staff are trying to diminish the union (by forcing it out of a defined-benefit system, in which employees have a promise of established future benefits, and into a defined-contribution system, in which employees are responsible for managing the investment portfolio that will determine how much they make after retiring), much like they're doing by pushing for a two-tiered wage scale and different contractors for bus and paratransit service. Different contracts mean different wages, different negotiations, and a divided union.

"It's all about busting the unions. I guarantee they'll make us have to negotiate two contracts with two different contractors," Wyatt says. "They're breaking up the unity, making us have different contracts, and pushing a two-tiered system."

Watson says nothing of the kind is happening. Rather, she says, Cap Metro offered concessions to ATU on the pension plan (concessions the union refused) in the hopes of creating a "smooth transition" into the new, private-contractor system. "I think our relationship now is as good as it can be based on all the circumstances," Watson says. "It's certainly improved over what it had been."

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