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StarTran Declares Impasse Against Union

Unionized Capital Metro workers staged a one-day strike in September. The union and StarTran still have yet to agree on a contract.
Unionized Capital Metro workers staged a one-day strike in September. The union and StarTran still have yet to agree on a contract. (Photo By John Anderson)

Last week, Capital Metro's largest contractor, StarTran, announced it would impose most aspects of the company's self-defined "last, best, and final offer" on the 800-plus members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091. The union and StarTran have been embroiled in bitter negotiations for eight months, their disagreements culminating Sept. 22 in a one-day strike against what the union calls unfair labor practices. While 1091's members have voted to authorize a strike, the cooling rhetoric on both sides, coupled with the delayed reaction in implementing the measures, make a strike unlikely until StarTran formally imposes its offer, scheduled for Jan. 1. (StarTran was created by Capital Metro to preserve the legal bargaining rights – under federal law – of the previously formed union, which the transit authority is legally prohibited from bargaining with – under state law.)

"It's not really far apart compared to where we were," said StarTran President Kent McCulloch; their proposal to lower starting pay for new hires has changed markedly since first proposed, but is still contentious. Bus operators are currently salaried on a wage-progression scale, whereby, starting at 75% of the maximum hourly wage ($18.56), they take four years to reach it; StarTran will now start new operators at 60%, then allow an employee to reach top wages in his or her sixth year of employment. StarTran's original proposal was a literal "two-tier" system – increasingly an issue in the transit industry – under which newly hired operators could never reach the top pay of those already employed. Although StarTran has moved away from the two-tier model, its replacement proposal remains unacceptable to many union members. As an alternative, the union proposes a 65% opening wage, and a five-year progression to top pay. That's closer than the two sides have been thus far, but the difference remains unresolved.

Several other aspects of StarTran's proposal are slated for January implementation, some agreed upon previously in negotiations but not yet part of a contract: They include a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy (Capital Metro's other contractors, the largely union-free Connex, and UT shuttle contractor First Transit already have a zero-tolerance policy in place), changes to incentive bonuses, overtime calculations, and excused absences for long-term illness.

StarTran has decided not to act on two contentious issues, leaving them as-is for now: health care benefits and current employee raises. Both parties are in agreement that health care costs are paramount; StarTran proposes to retain full insurance coverage for its employees, while raising the employee contribution for dependent coverage. The company also proposes cutting annual employee raises from 4% to 2%, a cut that was acceptable to the union if the company also bundled an additional 1% into a savings account for health expenses. StarTran hasn't decided (or declared) whether it will act on either of these issues in the near future. While no further meetings between StarTran and ATU 1091 were scheduled over the holidays, McCulloch told the Chronicle, "I imagine at some time there'll be more talks."

StarTran insists it must implement cost-saving measures because of declining or stagnant sales tax revenues. (Cap Metro relies for financing primarily on a one-cent portion of local sales taxes, and acknowledges that in recent months sales tax revenues have begun to rebound after several declining years). Andrea Lofye, Capital Metro spokeswoman, says if wages and health care benefits remained on their current tracks, "they would consume the whole penny sales tax." The union and its supporters, on the other hand, noting the rebound in revenues following Austin's tech crash, charge that StarTran's cost-cutting measures are an attempt to pay for Cap Metro's ambitious commuter rail program.

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transportation, labor relations, Capital Metro, StarTran, Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, Kent McCulloch, Andrea Loyfe

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