Union Considers Final Offer in Cap Metro Negotiations

If ATU 1091 rejects StarTran's offer – and they might – a strike could be on the horizon

Jay Wyatt
Jay Wyatt (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After more than two years of uneasy peace, there are once again rumors of war on the labor front over at Capital Metro. Next week, members of bus driver union Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, who have been working under an expired contract for more than a year now, will vote on the final offer from StarTran, Capital Metro's primary labor contractor. If the union rejects the offer, the only option left is to strike, or the company can declare an impasse and impose the contract on the union.

StarTran officials say that the company is making a generous offer. The proposed contract includes an initial raise of 3.5%, followed by raises of 3.25% each of the next two years, plus $1,000 in bonus compensation to make up for wages lost while the union was working under the expired contract. "There are a lot of dollars on the table," said Terry Garcia Crews, StarTran's general manager.

While Garcia Crews may consider Star­Tran's proposal an offer they can't refuse, to the union, it's more like an offer they can't accept. The proposed major changes to the company's health insurance plan, in particular, are a sore issue. The new health insurance plan, which is the same as that for nonbargaining StarTran administrators and staff, includes greater out-of-pocket expenses all around. Union workers, who never had to meet deductibles under the previous plan, would pay $300 for themselves and $600 for family, while co-payments for doctor visits would increase from $15 to $25.

Garcia Crews pointed out that the proposed plan is roughly comparable to that of city and state employees and that it provides out-of-network benefits. While this may be true in some cases, StarTran's plan has higher premium costs than most, and several other state and local agencies do not require employees to meet a deductible. Also, unlike state and city employees, insurance for StarTran workers ends at retirement, forcing many to work until they are old enough to qualify for Medicare.

But it's a moot point anyway, says Bill Kweder, union representative for ATU 1091. Since public employees have no right to collective bargaining, it's like comparing apples to cantaloupes, he said. "Because we have collective bargaining rights, we negotiate for our pay and benefits. Just as now, we have bargained in the past to get and keep our health-care plan. We have given up things to get things," Kweder said. City and state workers "did not have the opportunity to trade wages for benefits or other quality-of-life issues. They get what they're given."

ATU President Jay Wyatt says that negotiations have been unproductive, so far. In fact, there hasn't been much negotiating going on at all, he said: "They're just going through the motions." Wyatt said the union offered StarTran considerable wage concessions in order to keep the health plan the same, and the company hasn't even considered the offer. The union offered to reduce its wage increase to 1% for the first year from 3.5%, and 3% for the following two years, instead of the 3.25% that the company was offering.

Crews responded that the concessions were not enough to cover the costs of the old health-care proposal, but Kweder says this prompts the question: Why didn't StarTran give a counteroffer asking for more concessions? Kweder said that when the union made its counter- proposal, StarTran returned with the same offer they had previously made, completely unchanged. "They have been pushing paper and killing time," he said.

Another part of the proposed contract that is especially hard for the union to stomach is new language that removes a requirement that the union must approve any changes to benefits or health-plan providers. The new phrasing only requires that StarTran discuss changes with the union and that the benefits of any new plan be equal or greater than the current plan. Kweder says this is trading collective bargaining rights for a "meet-and-confer"-style process. Crews said that the caveats in the plan provide assurances to workers that benefits will stay the same. "We're not trying to take away anyone's power here," she said. "The company just needs flexibility in choosing a provider."

Also, the union is rejecting the $1,000 bonus, in favor of back pay for the wage increase applied retroactively for the period between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008. They call the bonus a "payoff" because it is a one-time payment and does not affect an employee's permanent pay rate. Over long periods of time, that increase in wages adds up, Kweder said.

The union will vote on the final proposal at its next meeting on Aug. 20.

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