No Breakthrough at Cap Metro

Union disputes notion that a deal has almost been reached

"What's disgusting?" rose the cry from about 80 protesters assembled in front of Capital Metro's Eastside headquarters last Saturday, their self-reflexive chant answering their own question: "Union busting!" Several labor groups, representing not only Austinites but workers across the state and country, assembled to celebrate International Human Rights Day and to call attention to the importance of workers' rights. But as Education Austin president Louis Malfaro declared, "It's no coincidence we're at Capital Metro."

Cap Metro's largest contractor, StarTran, has been in protracted negotiations with its largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, since their labor contract expired over the summer. With Thanksgiving gone and Christmas around the corner, ATU 1091 president Jay Wyatt says he wishes his workers had a contract for the new year, but the matter is in Capital Metro's hands. He rejected a statement in Monday's Statesman from Cap Metro and StarTran that an agreement is close. "Metro keeps on telling that lie. … If we're so close, how come we don't have a contract?" The last negotiations took place Nov. 28. Capital Metro Vice-President of Communications Rick L'Amie said StarTran President Kent McCulloch informed him there was "significant movement" toward an agreement. "Each time, we should've had an agreement," Wyatt said, blaming the difficulty on Cap Metro and StarTran's Houston attorney Jeff Londa, a self-professed specialist in "union avoidance," who is to Wyatt symptomatic of the problems in negotiations.

Because of conflicting state and federal labor laws, Cap Metro created StarTran to contract with its unionized workers, something it couldn't do directly. But by employing Londa as its lead negotiator, say Wyatt and his supporters, Cap Metro is illegally controlling the negotiations. He also says the process is draining Capital Metro of the money it hopes to save in its new contract. Londa "billed [Cap Metro] $4,500 for the last day of negotiations. We probably talked to him a good 45 minutes that day." (L'Amie said he had no idea if the bill was accurate. "I don't know where he's getting his numbers from," he said).

Saturday's event signaled a new strategy on the union's part – soliciting help from groups and individuals outside the local union sphere. Interacting that day with the labor groups was the Austin NAACP, whose president, Nelson Linder, was annoyed not only by what he saw as Capital Metro's stonewalling, but by City Council reaction to the stalled negotiations. While Mayor Will Wynn says he's been quietly working to broker a compromise, Linder said "obviously they're not interested" at the council. (Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez both serve on the Capital Metro board of directors). "We must force city leadership to force negotiations forward. Once they get involved in a public debate, it will stop the deadlock."

At yesterday's board meeting, the union delivered petition signatures from supportive riders, collected on Dec. 1 when Cap Metro reserved a seat on each bus in memory of Rosa Parks. Also, politics making for the strangest of bedfellows (or here, seat-mates), the union vows to work in tandem with those opposed to Capital Metro's next proposed round of rail services (often cited by the transit authority as a reason for cutting its starting pay in the proposed contract). StarTran and ATU 1091 are tentatively looking at another round of negotiations this Friday.

Back at the rally on Saturday, Malfaro led the protesters in a stirring, if sloppy, rendition of that old standard, "The Union Buster" (sung to the tune of "Oh, Susanna!" – "I'm a union buster – the bosses' trusty aide! I help keep their employees overworked and underpaid!"). "We gotta sing louder!," said Malfaro. "They don't care about a little folk song! We gotta be menacing!"

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