Labor Woes at Cap Metro

Capital Metro service hangs in the balance at 11-hour union negotiations

Capital Metro and its largest contractor, StarTran, are in negotiations with the men and women of Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, with tomorrow, Friday, Aug. 5, looming as the start date for a possible strike unless an agreement is reached.

If the two parties can't come to an agreement on time, service won't stop, but will run on a reduced schedule similar to weekend or holiday levels, Capital Metro spokesperson Andrea Lofye said, adding that administrative and contract employees would drive buses. Cap Metro had little else to say, other than that it anticipates contract negotiations will result in a "mutually beneficial resolution for the riding public."

According to Cap Metro's Web site, StarTran is involved in the conflict due to a clash between federal and state law. Federal law requires collective bargaining for recipients of federal transit assistance, while Texas' weak labor laws prohibit authorities like Cap Metro from bargaining with unions. The union's leader sees Capital Metro and its President and CEO Fred Gilliam as engaging in union-busting tactics. "[Capital Metro's attitude is] we've got the money, we're just not gonna give it to you," said union President Jay Wyatt. "That creates a fight," he continued. "They want to bust the union … so they can treat the employees any way they want to." Requests to speak to Gilliam were not answered as of press time.

The biggest grievance in Wyatt's eyes is a proposed two-tier salary system where new hires would be paid less than their coworkers. "It was a nightmare," Wyatt says of a system he did away with in 1997 negotiations. Doing so caused much trouble for Wyatt, 1091's president since 1986, who agreed to freeze wages for a year to get rid of the two-tier system. The dual-tier system is a tactic designed to weaken the union, Wyatt said. "[It] caused a lot of division between the employees," he said.

Union members also demand no increase in employee and family health care costs. "I quit school in eighth grade," said Wyatt, "but one thing I understand is if you increase the cost … it's a pay cut," adding that increased costs make people reluctant to visit the doctor. Other demands include the creation of health care benefits for retired employees and no changes to the current employee drug testing policy, which requires that all employees must come up clean in a preemployment test and in testing required if an on-the-job accident occurs.

The union-hostile Statesman editorial page proclaimed July 24 that as a matter of public safety, the drug policy should change. Wyatt disagrees, claiming current measures create a drug-free environment. The Statesman editorial called for immediate firing of any employee who comes up positive, a problem which Wyatt claims Cap Metro disingenuously exaggerated in negotiations.

The Statesman editorial's drug angle is a new spin on the paper's same tired anti-transit arguments and calls to cut bus funding. Regurgitating suburbanite "empty bus" talking points, the Statesman quoted Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who says the agency "gets way too much money for way too little ridership." In urging against the strike, the editorial also says "the agency's image is not the greatest," and "confidence in Capital Metro is low." These arguments are naturally at odds with Capital Metro's touted achievement of the "highest per capita ridership of any Texas transit system, with more than 130,000 boardings a day."

Perhaps one thing that we can all agree on is the need for change at the authority. "What needs to change at Cap Metro is the leadership, not the funding," Wyatt said. "What makes them above reproach?"

Key Union Demands

• No drop in starting salary for new hires

• No increase to health care costs for employees and family

• Creation of benefits for retired employees

• No changes to current drug testing policy

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