Point Austin: Memo to Cap Metro

Stop union-busting, or take a hike

Point Austin
You gotta hand it to the folks at Capital Metro. Each time they slowly and painfully crawl out of the muck of their latest public-relations disaster, they manage to find a way to roll back down the hill again. A few years ago, having overreached and underpromoted an ambitious light rail plan that the voters rejected, they came back with a bare-bones version that pleased almost nobody but had the virtue of electability. Now they say they're planning another comeback next fall, hoping for incremental approval of expanding commuter rail – if they can figure out how to sell it in the meantime.

In the latest variation of this now time-honored pattern, they've gotten off to a really great start. For the last few months President Fred Gilliam, board Chair Lee Walker, and their politician colleagues on the Cap Met board have been officially sitting on their hands while their labor contract negotiators, led by a self-proclaimed union-busting lawyer from Houston, do their level best to destroy the transit workers union.

That's not the official story, of course. According to Cap Metro's bosses, they've taken a pristine hands-off approach to the entire matter, as fig-leaf subcontractor StarTran is officially charged with the actual negotiations. The truth of the matter is, if Gilliam, Walker, et al., want a deal, it will get done. Instead, it increasingly appears they're willing to wait until the drivers, mechanics, and maintenance workers capitulate. Cap Metro wants the union to agree to a contract that, under the guise of incremental raises to current employees, will create a two-tier salary system that discriminates against new hires, attacks workers' quality of life, undermines employee solidarity, and jeopardizes the union. In order to accept it, the union would have to turn its back on its own membership.

Stung by public criticism, management insists it has taken the "two-tier" approach (a classic union-busting tactic) off the table, but instead all they've done is change the name and offer slightly better terms. They appear not to grasp – or rather, grasp all too well – that for the union to accept a two-tier contract is to collaborate in its own destruction. It's no accident that until recently, Ogletree Deakins attorney Jeff Londa, brought in from the firm's Houston office for the purpose, bragged on his Web site of his cutthroat negotiating style and his proud role in imposing a two-tier contract on Houston transit employees. (Now Londa just claims a specialty in "union avoidance" – a polite euphemism for union-busting.)

Is it any wonder that Cap Metro now whines that Austin drivers are "overpaid" compared to drivers in Houston?

A Tale of Two Demos

This town is up to its armpits in so-called "liberals" who support progressive causes in direct proportion to their distance from Austin Ground Zero. Nowhere is that more apparent than in union battles. Local progs love to give lip-service to worker-related causes, but remain largely uninterested in (or hostile to) actual, union-organized working people unless they're picking grapes in California or tomatoes in Florida.

Local 1091's fight, which has been going on literally for months, is a painfully embarrassing case in point. Last Saturday, the union and the Central Labor Council sponsored an International Human Rights Day rally at Cap Metro to support workers' rights generally and the union's cause in particular. If one-half, or one-third – hell, one-quarter – of the thousands of hysterical protesters who assembled at City Hall last month when a half-dozen headline-hungry San Angelo Klan Klowns slouched into town had shown up to join the workers, management would now be begging to settle on a reasonable contract. Instead, a vigorous but small crowd of 80 or so people marched at the corner of Fifth and Pleasant Valley, no doubt encouraging the suits inside Cap Metro headquarters to believe it's only a matter of time.

By the same token, if a bare fraction of the citizen and city staff time, money, and energy already spent on planning "Quality of Life" programs for local African-Americans were turned to defending the existing but Cap Metro-endangered quality of life of the 800 or so mostly minority transit workers and their families – who are literally fighting on our behalf for the whole community's future – wouldn't management now be begging for a settlement? Where are all those folks who packed City Hall for the Quality of Life hearings?

And by the way, where are all those noisy enviros who insist they want more mass transit? On whose backs?

Off the Rails

I am told, sotto voce, that progress is being made, and that quiet political efforts may soon result in a deal. Mayor Wynn tells me, "I've never really worried that this process is going to go off the rails. It's just seemed to me like a typical hard-fisted negotiation that's had its share of difficult, but not unexpected, rough spots. ... My goal has been to get both sides to look beyond the immediate engagement and to concentrate instead on the long-term best interests of Capital Metro. I am confident that the two sides will reach an agreement."

Maybe so. It sure seems like a Cap Met board spotted with local philanthropic and political heavies like Walker, County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, and Council Member Raul Alvarez should be able to muster enough weight – if they really want to – to persuade StarTran to send Londa back to Houston, stop cynically hiding behind "the marketplace," take some pride in treating Austin workers well, and get done a fair and union-friendly deal. Until they do, none of these so-called progs should feel safe to show their faces at the next Democratic Party fundraiser, let alone the next AFL-CIO election rally.

Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt is angry enough at his bosses to say they've burned all their bridges, and that the workers will henceforth refuse to support any future rail initiatives. I won't go quite that far – yet – although I believe that if Cap Metro and city officials really believed in mass transit for the people who most need it, they would create a massive urban bus program for city dwellers that could at least remotely compare to the efficiently socialized system that UT students, faculty, and staff are privileged to use and take for granted as a matter of course.

I'm just one hack at a local alternative weekly of intermittently ill repute. But I expect to fill this space for some time forward, and to have some small say amongst our famously undisciplined editorial board. And it says here that if Cap Metro doesn't stop its union-busting, and continues to insist on a contract designed to undermine one of the few effectively organized workforces sustaining Austin's minority workers and their families, I will never again have a kind or supportive word to say about Cap Metro's grand plans for suburbanized mass transit. Don't even ask.

That's a promise. end story

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Capital Metroorganized labor, Capital Metro, Fred Gilliam, Lee Walker, Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1091, Jeff Londa, Central Labor Council, Quality of Life, Will Wynn, Jay Wyatt, mass transit

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