Point Austin: Hold That Bus!

Proposed new Cap Metro labor deal waits for willing riders

Point Austin
There will be plenty more stops on the way to resolving the labor situation at Capital Metro.

Last month the Cap Metro board did something essentially unprecedented. After months of backroom negotiations and arm-twisting, led mostly by City Council Member Lee Leffingwell with support from Brewster McCracken, the board voted unanimously to endorse – in principle – a pro-labor policy that would end the agency's outsourcing that has undermined wages and threatened union jobs and in return create a "meet and confer" relationship with the transit workers' union (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091) akin to that of the city of Austin's relations with the police and firefighters unions.

If it works – and that's a very big if – it would mean that the beleaguered transit workers, who have watched their working conditions deteriorate while Cap Metro management bends over backward to placate and subsidize suburban commuters (and their political representatives), could move toward the sort of job security and status enjoyed by the city's (other) public-safety employees.

No one is celebrating just yet. Leffingwell's own thank-you letter to the board grumbles in passing that the final resolution "is the product of considerable compromise and quite different from what I originally proposed" but continues, "we have finally reached the point where there could soon be meaningful dialog about how to unify our transit-system workforce and establish a direct relationship between labor and management."

ATU President Jay Wyatt is even more skeptical, because the policy as proposed would require the union to abandon the right to strike in return for a meet-and-confer relationship with, as he sees it, no alternative protection for the workers if negotiations should break down. "If we go to meet and confer without any protection, we're going to run into the same situation we had last time [last year's impasse and near-strike], where we're not going to be able to reach an agreement" – only this time the union would have no other recourse, because the new policy explicitly calls for "non-binding, fact finding, or panel recommendations" in case of an impasse. Although he praises Leffingwell's efforts, Wyatt sees the proposal as enacted as little more than a management bait and switch to undermine the union. "Everything they're doing is to try to bust this union," Wyatt said. "If I agree to meet and confer without protection, in five years this union wouldn't exist, because the membership would say, 'We don't need you no more; you can't do nothing for us.'"

Jumping Through Hoops

It's no accident that it's so difficult for Texas public agency employees to exercise their labor-organizing rights – the Legislature, in a bipartisan fashion stretching back to the Fifties and beyond, has done whatever it can to weaken unions, most directly by outlawing "collective bargaining" by public employees. Yet federal law (which in theory should override state restrictions) enables public unions. That has resulted in managerial gargoyles like Cap Metro subcontractor StarTran, which nominally employs and negotiates with union workers – even though it's apparent to everybody but a blind salamander or a state rep that Cap Metro pulls the strings. As Wyatt eloquently puts it, "We all know that StarTran is just a figmentation of our imagination. We all work for Capital Metro any damn way."

In practice, public agencies where union sentiment is strong (e.g., city of Austin) have found ways to enable collective bargaining (e.g., meet-and-confer) that euphemistically evade the state prohibition. But the trump cards inevitably remain in management hands. In the current case, when the ATU demands binding arbitration, management points to the Capitol and shrugs, "It's out of our hands." Wyatt says it's up to management, if they're indeed sincere, to twist arms at the Lege to enable bargaining – but under current conditions, if he's waiting for that to happen, he better not hold his breath. He responds with his own shrug: "I'd rather take my chances with an arbitrator than give up my rights."

Waiting at the Station

Leffingwell, audibly wearied by months of arm-twisting, argues that the union loses nothing by entering into talks over meet-and-confer – all the resolution requires is that the parties "seek to reach a Memorandum of Understanding ... expressing the intention ... to negotiate a relationship," a bureaucratic mouthful that reflects how much suspicion and uncertainty still divide Cap Metro management and its 800 or so unionized workers. Leffingwell points out that Wyatt "agreeing to discuss meet-and-confer doesn't commit him to doing it. What do you have to lose by just starting this discussion? ... I hope he will at least enter into some preliminary informal talks with [former city attorney] Lowell Denton."

Denton, who designed the meet-and-confer process for the city, has been brought in to try to work out this latest version of collective-bargaining-by-any-other-name. Those close to the discussions insist that a working principle is that whatever state law may say, anything two parties can agree on in a contract – including some euphemistic form of binding arbitration – can be effectively enabled and protected. And they note that when talks broke down in December 2005, making a strike imminent, the direct intervention of Mayor Will Wynn finally prevented a bus crash and indirectly led to the current progress. "I think Jay is also overlooking the politics of the situation," said Leffingwell. "There's significant political pressure that can be brought to bear to resolve these disputes."

But Leffingwell also acknowledged to me that in the absence of an agreement, Cap Metro management appears determined to proceed with business as usual, including cutting labor costs (and union jobs) by more outsourcing. "As much as I'm against it," he said, "I really think they're going to keep doing that. Right now [in-house] employees are about 70 percent, and they have a plan in place to take that to 50 percent or even 35 percent." It will be very difficult to take seriously nonbinding resolutions endorsing a "unified work force" if management continues to consider outsourcing a means to subsidize commuter passenger rail at the expense of an inner-city, mostly minority workforce.

That won't happen without a fight, and it also makes it more justifiable for Wyatt and his union to see the current process as a form of blackmail. "They didn't have to outsource our work in the first place," Wyatt told me. "They did that to push us into a corner in order to make us accept meet-and-confer."

In this atmosphere of mutual suspicion, nothing much is likely to happen before late June, when a federal arbitrator is scheduled to consider the in-progress rail outsourcing, which the union insists is illegal. The outcome of that arbitration may have much to say about the future of the Memorandum of Understanding – and more importantly, about the future of workers' rights, public service employees, and union power in Central Texas. If indeed "the politics of the situation" are that local officials truly believe, as they inevitably insist at campaign time, in the rights of workers to organize and the job security of local employees, this is as good as any occasion to demonstrate it. end story

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labor relationsCapital Metro, Capital Metro, Jay Wyatt, Lee Leffingwell, ATU 1091

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