The Bus Stops Here: Cap Metro

One-day strike ratchets up tensions between transit agency and union

Capital Metro workers strike in front of the transit agency's headquarters Thursday. The one-day strike forced Cap Metro to run a reduced schedule, resulting in large crowds at bus stops and forcing many commuters to find a different way to work or school.
Capital Metro workers strike in front of the transit agency's headquarters Thursday. The one-day strike forced Cap Metro to run a reduced schedule, resulting in large crowds at bus stops and forcing many commuters to find a different way to work or school. (Photo By John Anderson)

"We were able to show Capital Metro we'll set it, we'll call it, and there's nothing they can do about it," said Bob Johnson, vice-president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, as he stood outside the transportation authority's administrative offices last Thursday, dragging on an ever-present cigarette. Over a hundred rowdy union members stood farther down the block, urging drivers to honk their horns in support and jeering buses passing in and out of the lot. ATU 1091 had surprised Cap Metro and the city, beginning a one-day strike, in protest against what they say are unfair labor practices, at 3am that morning.

Cap Metro said as many as 60 bus drivers broke ranks by crossing the picket line – a number Johnson dismissed – so about 18 routes out of 80 overall were able to run that day. Johnson said most of the drivers were from another, union-free contractor or were probationary employees – new drivers not yet eligible to join the union who could be fired for participating. The strike was a result of Cap Metro's refusal to bargain, Johnson said. "We handed them our proposal, and they threw it back across the table. … All we've really been asking for is fair negotiations."

Since April, Local 1091 and its employer – officially subcontractor StarTran, increasingly overshadowed by Cap Metro – have been in negotiations, with little or no progress. The union originally wanted a one- to two-year contract extension, giving parties a cooling-off period, said Brian Heintzman, vice-president of the national ATU. Of all the contract changes proposed by the company in bargaining – including an increase in employee and family health care costs, as well as a cut-off of benefits for retired employees – the creation of a two-tier salary system is the union's poison pill. They consider it a union-breaker; paying new employees 16% less than current workers creates antipathy toward the union on the part of new hires, driving a wedge between generations of workers. After failing again to reach an agreement Sept. 14, union members say they had no other option than to send Capital Metro a message.

"I think it went very well today," said 1091 President Jay Wyatt. "We didn't want to have a big negative impact on our employees … [or] on the citizens of Austin," he said of restricting the strike to one day. Cap Metro charged that the action prevented them from providing buses for those evacuating in Hurricane Rita's as-yet-uncharted path, a claim that infuriated Wyatt. "That's bullshit," he fumed. In a Friday Statesman article, Cap Metro spokesman Rick L'Amie backtracked: Had the transit authority been asked, it couldn't have helped, he said.

Wyatt says Cap Metro is behind the friction between the union and StarTran, CM's largest contractor, created to resolve the discrepancy between federal law, which requires bargaining for Austin's bus drivers, and labor-hostile state law, which prohibits state agencies from such bargaining. Cap Metro insists StarTran has had its hand on the negotiations wheel exclusively. Yet Cap Metro and StarTran share the same attorney, Houstonian Jeff Londa; 1091 maintains he was hired specifically to bust the union. (Londa's Ogletree Deakins bio boasts of his experience in "union avoidance.") Union Veep Johnson argues StarTran is simply "a puppet regime, strictly enforced and guided by [Cap Metro President and CEO] Fred Gilliam." (And at press time, ATU filed a lawsuit based on that allegation.)

While Austin bus drivers are among Texas' best compensated, with only Dallas drivers making more than the top operator hourly wage of $18.56, the union maintains that factoring in Austin's high cost of living, Cap Met employees are paid less than they're worth. "When you compare Austin with other city transit systems of similar size and demographics," reads a letter from ATU to the Cap Met board of directors, "you will discover that StarTran Union employees make below the average wages paid."

Some suggest that Cap Metro board members, specifically council members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez, could be more prominent in trying to broker a compromise. Alvarez says he has suggested a "a one-year agreement that both parties could deal with … common ground upon which you could build," but that he isn't really involved in the negotiations. "To a certain degree, we kind of view it as a third party … because all we hear are reports on how the negotiations are going." Asked if he thought Cap Metro was negotiating in bad faith, he said, "I personally don't believe that is occurring. … I've tried to make sure we respect the separation that exists … and that Cap Metro is doing the same." At press time, Thomas was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Richard Arellano, Mayor Will Wynn's chief of staff, said, "The mayor wants Capital Metro's leadership to know the union has a willingness to negotiate on all fronts except one – which they consider a union-breaker – which is the two-tier wage system." Arellano described Wynn's role as that of diplomat: "He wants to help assure that there is a mutual understanding on agreements and differences." If Wynn's diplomacy doesn't work, he plans on creating a "center of gravity" amongst leaders in the Metro service area to "draw both sides to the middle ground," Arellano said. While stopping short of making any endorsements, Arellano said, "Given that the union views the two-tier system as a life-or-death struggle, we need to find a solution that does not involve a life-or-death struggle."

A two-tier pay scale could decimate more than Local 1091; skilled blue-collar labor that lets workers establish a hand-hold in the middle class is an increasingly endangered species. Cap Met's L'Amie says StarTran employees already "work side by side with different wage structures because of longevity," but 1091 even sees that very longevity as threatened. "The proof is in the pudding," said Wyatt of Cap Metro's threat of replacing workers if they keep striking, "that Fred Gilliam is trying to bust the union." Asked what the next step is, Wyatt smiled. "Let's put it this way," he said, "I'm not calling them."

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