Point Austin: What Good Are Unions?

Give a hand to those Cap Metro workers who fought for you and me

Point Austin
Bus drivers, bus riders, or just bus sympathizers, we can all breathe a sigh of relief at the 11th-hour settlement of the pending strike by Cap Metro employees. However long it would have lasted, it would have been a major black eye to the transit authority and a worse financial blow to the workers, who were already taking hits imposed by management as of Jan. 1. From the narrowest perspective, the union settled for perhaps less than they could have won outright with a strike, but a strike costs them more and risks them more than anyone else, so they need to make that decision for themselves. Unfortunately for all concerned, the decision may come around again all too soon – the new contract expires in about 18 months, with negotiations expected to begin early next year, so unless the combative atmosphere (or strategy) diminishes in the meantime, we can expect those talks to proceed in suspicion if not hostility. We'll see.

The available backstory on the prolonged negotiations and settlement is also intriguing. For months, Cap Metro management and its board insisted that the matter was entirely in the hands of its contractor, StarTran. (Some of this cosmetic dumb-show may be necessary, for legal reasons, because of the frankly oppressive anti-union laws in Texas, whose majority legislators would be right at home in one-party, company union Beijing.) There were intermittent charades at board meetings to the effect that all the members could do was wring their hands and make sympathetic noises. In recent weeks, the prospect of upcoming elections seemed to stiffen the spines of a few candidates, and suddenly the board buzz became "This has gone far enough" and "something needs to be done."

Most enigmatic of all was phantom board Chair Lee Walker – aka "the Ghost Who Walks" – who regally avoided questions on the subject for weeks, then suddenly materialized at one decisive end of Mayor Wynn's shuttle diplomacy late Sunday night. Despite the official position of everyone concerned, throughout the negotiations reporters were told, invariably off the record, "There will be a settlement when Walker wants a settlement." Some of this cynicism is no doubt due to cargo-cult deference to Walker's cyber-millions, but it is obviously true enough that Wynn knew whose cell phone to jangle.

Kudos to the mayor for that political insight, and since both sides are giving him full credit for mediating a deal, who are we to say anything but, good on you?

Who Will Build Your Rail?

The deal itself seems very mixed, although the conventional wisdom is that to the extent both parties are unhappy, a contract is probably a decent compromise. Much of the management lament concerns rising health care costs – hardly a surprise to any sentient American citizen – and the company did get some concessions on both co-pays and eventually premiums, but not the dramatic changes it initially wanted. Current workers got moderate (3% in each year) raises, but they came partly at the expense of future employees, who will have their initial earnings cut from 75% of the top wage (about $40,000 straight time) to 60% ($24,000 a year), not an insignificant blow to a young worker trying to support a family.

That one stung, acknowledged union President Jay Wyatt, but it was accepted subject to the management concession that those new workers would still eventually reach the top rate, albeit in five years instead of four. That may seem arcane or picayune to outsiders, but it maintains a crucial union principle, of broader solidarity – the current members were willing to risk their jobs over not simply their own financial security, but on behalf of workers who are not even on the job yet. It should go abundantly without saying that these are not wealthy people, and in their work they serve primarily workers much like themselves – on whom it should not be lost that in holding their ground against the union-busting, "two-tier" wage system management sought, the union stood up for every working person in town. Good on them, too.

Contrast that with Cap Metro's now institutional position that in order to build its ambitious commuter rail system, which (however a practical necessity) is essentially another state subsidy to suburban developers, suburban commuters, and suburban Republican politicians, it is willing to cut financial corners on its inner-city and mostly minority employees. We don't know how that argument will come down to the voters over the next couple of years, but is it any wonder that the working people on the short end of that public project stick are now declaring proudly, "Kill Rail!"

They Call It Democracy

But beyond all these economic arguments, there should be one thing perfectly clear. If it weren't for the union – and the indispensable right to strike – Cap Metro/StarTran would have been able to impose a contract at its managerial whim, to subject its employees to whatever terms of work and wages it deems agreeable, and to fire anybody who might have the temerity to object. The other day, the Statesman led its "strike-looming" story with the predicament of a would-be scab, supposedly caught in the middle between labor and management. Will that woeful man, who turned his back on his fellow workers, now turn down the raises they won with their common courage? Or will he finally see the light, and decide which side he's on?

It's a question likely to be asked again of all of us in another year or so. The answer rests not, primarily, on specific economic issues, but on the much more fundamental question whether working people have a right to an effective say over the decisions that most directly affect their lives. Democracy is not about periodic elections, when we're minimally allowed to ratify the political arrangements mostly employed to reinforce the economic arrangements that rule us. Democracy is about taking power over our own institutions, which we have built with our own hands and hearts. The courageous members of ATU Local 1091 have proved once again that unions are central to that ongoing struggle. end story

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labortransportation, Capital Metro, Lee Walker, Mayor Will Wynn, Jay Wyatt, ATU Local 1091, StarTran

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