Capital Metro's Labor Lowdown

StarTran makes its 'last, best, and final offer'

ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt says StarTran's best offer isn't good enough.
ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt says StarTran's best offer isn't good enough. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

On Saturday, Nov. 12, a week after its last bargaining session, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 rejected Capital Metro contractor StarTran's "last, best, and final offer" by a vote of 289 to 24. The union also voted to authorize a strike, by a similarly large margin.

If the parties do not negotiate again, StarTran has threatened to implement by Friday all or part of its offer, as allowed by federal law when negotiations are at an impasse. StarTran maintains that its offer is more than fair and reasonable, yet the union is prepared to strike – not to protect its own wages, but to guard the salaries of future employees. "It's not all they asked for, but it's a heck of a long way," said StarTran President Kent McCulloch.

Because Cap Metro is prohibited from participating in contract bargaining, which the union is guaranteed, the agency created StarTran in 1991. It's Cap Metro's largest contractor, and Cap Metro has made no secret of its interest in negotiations (a semiprivately circulated e-mail from Lee Walker, chair of Cap Metro's board of directors, says the transit authority "has a huge stake in the negotiations"), though it has always maintained it isn't directly participating.

McCulloch says StarTran has been a fair negotiator, and has not engaged in surface bargaining. As an example, he points to StarTran's move away from a proposed two-tier salary scale, where new hires are on a different pay track than current ones. StarTran's final offer switched to a wage progression scale, the same system currently used, but stretches it out. Cap Metro drivers currently take four years to reach the top pay rate; StarTran's proposal increases it to nine years. That change would cost the agency an additional million dollars, said McCulloch.

StarTran's offer also contains 3% raises for existing employees over the next three years. With the nine-year wage progression, Cap Metro hopes to save $17 million. They need the savings for new services and programs, McCulloch says.

ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt described StarTran's final offer as "a smokescreen." "They haven't put anything real on the table," said Wyatt, who disagrees with the declaration of an impasse. That would require both parties to negotiate in good faith, and that hasn't occurred, he says. According to Wyatt, Cap Metro has been controlling StarTran through its shared attorney, union avoidance specialist Jeff Londa. Wyatt accused Londa of using the two-tier offer to drive a wedge in the union, between higher-paid senior staff and lower-paid new hires.

Wyatt also maintains that StarTran hasn't been interested in meaningful negotiations. He listed the concessions his local has made, including changes to health care, injury/illness leave, and drug policy. "Those are good concessions. What have they done?" Wyatt described StarTran's move from two-tier to an extended wage scale as purely cosmetic – "six in one hand, half a dozen in the other" – and called the 3% wage increase "a carrot," designed to make employees accept changes detrimental to their contracts, not to mention future ones. Local labor leader Louis Malfaro, a supporter of the union, agreed. "If they're so interested in cutting salary costs," he asked, "why offer a 3-percent raise?"

While StarTran and 1091 disagree over wages for bus operators and maintenance workers, an argument over Austin's cost of living has also come to the forefront. "Nominally, Austin does have higher wages," Malfaro said; however, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Research Association's cost of living index, Austin is the most expensive of similarly sized Texas cities. Controlling for cost of living, "wages are still higher, but only by about a buck or so – nowhere near the take-backs Metro is proposing, he says. Lowering wages by 16% (as in StarTran's proposal) "would make new Austin operators the absolutely lowest paid of all bus operators but those in Laredo, before factoring in the cost of living," said Malfaro, adding "once cost of living is considered, Austin falls to the very bottom of the heap." McCulloch disagrees. "The cost of living is very comparable [to other Texas markets]," he said. "Gas is the same, food is the same. … I don't buy that at all, that there's a cost of living difference."

Although the argument that Cap Metro drastically overpays its operators is absurd to Malfaro, it apparently isn't to Lee Walker. In the e-mail circulated to several of his contacts, he states that "wages for StarTran operators are approximately $4 per hour more than those of the [union free] Connex and First Transit [UT shuttle bus] operators: same buses, same jobs, different pay." The fact that Walker feels StarTran's employees are overpaid by $4 an hour is telling to Malfaro. "I don't know where he's getting his numbers," he said. "He needs to step up to the plate and exercise some leadership and authority" in brokering a compromise.

Malfaro said there's a disconnect between Capital Metro leadership and the negotiations. For him, it manifests this blistering irony: In a city that has spent all year wringing its hands over treatment of its African-American citizens, planning hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures to improve their quality of life, we have a government agency telling a majority-minority workforce that they're overpaid. "You know what?" he said. "Let's take $4 off the top of their wages." (Wyatt was, characteristically, more blunt: "They're trying to screw their minority employees, and they need to stop that shit.")

"These people aren't 'union busters,'" Malfaro said of the Cap Metro board, which includes Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez. He noted the respect Walker garners in local progressive circles, but lamented, "They're just not getting it." (Contacted for this story, a Cap Metro spokesperson said Walker was out of town for several days.)

The mayor's office is said to be working behind the scenes, hoping to broker a compromise. "I am confident that the upcoming negotiations are going to bear good fruit. Folks are committed to not letting this situation get out of hand," Will Wynn told the Chronicle. Just what "upcoming negotiations" means remains to be seen. StarTran's offer for further negotiations expires this Friday. Aside from calling the offer "a slap in the face" (both parties had always mutually agreed on a date in the past), Wyatt said it's logistically implausible. ATU 1549, the UT shuttle driver's union, is also holding a meeting Friday. ATU 1549 will vote, as 1091 did last weekend, on whether or not to authorize a strike to support the union, and protest what they charge are anti-union moves from their own employer, like not collecting union dues from their paychecks.

If there's one thing all parties can agree on, however, it's the damaging nature of a strike. The union claims it will be a last resort, but possibly the only way to get its point across. Malfaro attributes what he sees as a lack of leadership to possible confusion, a fundamental misunderstanding over what 1019 is fighting for. "These guys aren't fighting for themselves. They're fighting for middle class jobs."

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