Capital Metro Strike Threat Looms

Despite citizen efforts to intervene, negotiations have not progressed

Jay Wyatt, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091
Jay Wyatt, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Capital Metro's new bus schedule shipped last week. The cover features a sleek, angular detail of HEB's Tech Ridge outpost in North Austin. The image – not to mention the new route servicing it, which begins circulating Dell commuters from the new Tech Ridge Park and Ride on Jan. 29 – represents the transit authority's lofty future goals. Cap Metro's pains to present itself as a smart, relevant company, in tune to the needs of an expanding Austin, are a far cry from the image of mismanagement that plagued the transit authority up to the mid-Nineties. Indeed, the Park and Ride is ripped from the playbook of Envision Central Texas, the theoretically progressive umbrella organization devoted to managing growth in the Austin/Central Texas corridor, with a particular attention to mass transit solutions. So it may have come as a surprise when fellow smart growthers Liveable City, generally one of Cap Metro's most stalwart supporters, presented a resolution to the Capital Metro Board of Directors at its Monday meeting, urging the board to resolve the ongoing labor dispute between its largest contractor, StarTran, and Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, before the continuing standoff degenerates into an outright strike. Today (Thursday), the union is expected to issue a statement warning of its plans to go out on strike beginning Monday, Jan. 30.

A strike, if it happens, would be the culmination of an extended and exceedingly bitter labor dispute, which began last April. In September, 1091 staged a one-day lightning strike, but this would be different: In addition to giving the public notice, the strike would in theory last indefinitely. Discussing worker resources, 1091 President Jay Wyatt noted that StarTran – a nonprofit that officially employs Cap Metro workers, in order to reconcile conflicting state and federal labor laws – ended the automatic union fee deduction (dues checkoff) from employee paychecks back in October, when the union contract formally expired. "We have not been collecting dues since October. The purpose of this is to weaken us."

Following months of negotiations, and the September strike, StarTran declared negotiations officially at an impasse in December, a designation the union describes as self-fulfilling because of StarTran's unwillingness to make meaningful concessions. The declaration legally allowed StarTran to impose on employees most of its final offer, the centerpiece being a new wage scale paying new employees 20% less than the former starting wages (under which current employees were hired). While health insurance remains free for employees (Cap Metro spokesperson Andrea Lofye told the Austin American-Statesman that maintaining those benefits constitutes a management "concession"), coverage for dependents has gone up over 20%. StarTran president Kent McCulloch agrees premium costs have risen 25%, but StarTran shoulders proportionately increased costs. Wyatt also said four employees were terminated since the new year, because StarTran made changes to long-term illness absence policy, cutting it from 24 to 12 months. Capital Metro and StarTran disagree; they say employees aren't fired but placed on "inactive status" after 12 months. The workers lose health coverage and other benefits, but are eligible to reapply once they're well. And while StarTran implemented its salary cut for new employees (which the union sees as creating two classes of employees), current workers still haven't received a raise, much less retroactively. Said Wyatt bluntly, "We're in a serious box."

A potential new avenue in contract negotiations unfolded last week, when an ad hoc community advisory committee came forward, offering to broker or mediate a mutually agreeable contract. Committee chair and local businessman Carl Tepper sees Capital Metro's cost-saving goals as reasonable, but believes the two groups can work together to save money. Tepper formerly chaired the Capital Metro's customer satisfaction advisory committee, a group that fielded rider complaints, and says he worked closely with the board. Last week, however, Tepper received "a very polite 'no thanks'" from McCulloch, who wrote "it is incumbent on the Union to offer alternatives that will bridge the gap between … the parties," and encourages the committee to work solely with 1091 to create those alternatives. "Our motives are pure," says Tepper. "We think they should consider [our offer] again," and added that if Capital Metro fears the makeup of the citizens committee is too union-friendly, that can be negotiated too. "We don't want to see a strike, to see the agency and the union come under negative public scrutiny. … There is a common conscience," says Tepper, one that wants both fiscal responsibility and a fair shake "for the guy driving the bus." Lofye said "to bring in outside mediation at this point would delay the process."

Despite Cap Metro's rejection, Wyatt believes the mediation effort is "not a dead issue," especially since negotiations brokered by Mike McMillion, from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, have thus far been fruitless. McMillion, brought aboard by StarTran's declaration of an impasse, has been "playing the company's side," says Wyatt, and demanding additional union concessions. In its Monday meeting, after a lengthy stint in executive session, the Cap Met board said StarTran was ready to negotiate again – with the assistance of McMillion. Wyatt described that alternative as an exercise in "repeating your insanity."

Monday's meeting suggests that public pressure is increasing on the board to intervene directly. "This is very painful for us, honestly … we're very strong supporters of Capital Metro and public transportation necessary for the city," said Liveable City board member Mark Yznaga, but, he added, "It's important that public entities support their employees." Yznaga believes board Chair Lee Walker has the power to intervene in negotiations by reining in StarTran. "I don't think anyone questions that the board could solve this problem if they wanted to," Yznaga said.

Louis Malfaro, president of the Austin Central Labor Council and a Liveable City board member, was even more blunt. "Capital Metro is behaving like the biggest union-busting group imaginable." Malfaro said that Liveable City was "about fed up with Capital Metro shooting themselves in the foot," and that he feared the reverberating fallout Capital Metro could expect from a strike. "The board is coming to understand that the managers of StarTran and Cap Metro have made strategic blunders … [and] there is some indication that the broader community is waking up." At a recent meeting organized by several local religious leaders, Malfaro noted, "a half-dozen ministers walked up one side of [Cap Metro president and CEO] Fred Gilliam and down the other" over StarTran's unilateral imposition of new and diminished contract terms.

"Lee Walker has more power," says Wyatt; "if four people stand up [a board majority], and say 'This has got to stop,' Walker could bring the standoff to an end." Wyatt remains surprised at the board's silence, especially from City Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas. Alvarez, leaving his council post in May, has little to lose, while Thomas could use the opportunity to spark union support for his mayoral candidacy. (Ironically, Thomas' son makes his living as a bus operator.) The Chronicle unsuccessfully tried contacting Walker for this story; buttonholed before Monday's board meeting and asked if he felt Local 1091 was getting a fair deal under StarTran's new rules, he said, "I'm not going to touch that one right now." The meeting would end dramatically – Walker exited abruptly after unsuccessfully trying to adjourn, while other board members preferred to stay and consider whether the board should intervene.

Last week, Walker appeared on KLRU's Austin Now, where he trumpeted Cap Metro's ambitious suburban commuter rail plan. The transit authority has big things planned as part of its All Systems Go initiative, but the drawn-out labor negotiations, teetering on the edge of a strike, are beginning to dismay mass transit's most fundamental supporters – who would be called on to beat the drums for any future rail vote.

For the union, whose members increasingly believe the path toward rail is being paved with their own economic surrender, things appear more immediately dire. "It is a do-or-die situation," Wyatt said.

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