Point Austin: A Family Matter

Cap Met employees face another stark decision on their livelihoods

Point Austin
Here we go again.

Largely off the public radar – preoccupied as we all are with a national election and more recently an economic crisis – the unionized employees (about 800 drivers, mechanics, and service workers) at Capital Metro are locked in an ongoing contract dispute with management. Technically, the union dispute is with StarTran, the subcontractor made necessary by state law prohibiting Cap Metro from bargaining directly with the union, while federal law (source of some Cap Metro funding) simultaneously protects collective bargaining. (If you're confused, consider the inevitable duplications of effort in such an arrangement; even reporting on the agency is clouded, because it's frankly never clear who exactly is in charge.)

After roughly 18 months of only slightly productive negotiations (the last contract expired in June 2007), on Oct. 15 StarTran officially declared an "impasse" and began imposing its new contract terms, beginning with enrolling employees in a new health-insurance plan that's been one of the central matters of contention. According to StarTran Gen­er­al Manager Terry Garcia Crews, any further delay in enrollment would jeopardize employees' access to insurance, and "we don't want our employees and their families to be without this new coverage on January 1." Union President Joneth "Jay" Wyatt (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091) dismissed StarTran's decision as one more intimidation tactic, charging that the decision to declare an impasse was both precipitous and illegal. Accord­ing­ly, the union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Dueling press releases are ricocheting, and that's where things stood Wednesday as union members began to vote (through Friday) on StarTran's current offer. "If the membership accepts it," said Wyatt, "they accept it. If not, we're likely going to strike." In the event of a rejection, negotiations could resume, although the members voted in August to authorize a strike if necessary.

What's at Stake

Nobody is making conciliatory noises, so I suppose we are much closer to a transit-disrupting strike – and major family sacrifice by union members – than we were a month ago. Wyatt has been insisting for some time that management has not negotiated in good faith and wants a strike, a charge he reiterated this week. "They want the strike," he said. "It's not us – that's why they keep throwing down stuff they know we're not going to agree to." He said this week a union member reported overhearing Crews and some of her managers "laughing and joking about how much money they're going to save if we go out on strike. That's why they're pushing us to go out on strike. ... [They were saying] they'll save money in fuel costs and employee wages, and they were counting the days and how much they would save if we go out on strike."

Crews says that's "not correct. That's not been discussed, at least within our management team." Asked about charges of "union-busting," Crews insisted that management has conceded on "seven of 11" matters that the union had resisted, thus proving "that the movement that we've shown ... basically illustrates the position that this is not a punitive proposal."

It's arguable that StarTran and Cap Metro have saved considerable money since last June, as there have been no wage increases since the expiration of the contract. The two sides are not far apart on the literal wage package over the next three years, but major disagreements concern StarTran's refusal to consider a retroactive raise, its insistence on a one-time $1,000 "bonus" payment instead of raises (that would lift the whole wage scale), the details of the health-insurance plan (which with new co-payments would represent a considerable giveback by the union), and management's proposal to impose a lower starting wage for some less-skilled driver positions. The union says that's a backdoor way to a "two-tier" wage scale (a deal-breaker before the last strike) and eventually a wedge to break the union.

"You have to look past today," concluded Wyatt. "Once you accept this type of package from a company ... it's an avalanche. Next contract, same thing. ... It's about busting this union. It ain't that they need the money; it ain't that they ain't got the money. It's about busting this union, period."

Just the Facts

Since the principal parties aren't speaking, I called a few Cap Metro board members – especially the new chair, Travis Co. Commissioner Margaret Gomez – to ask if they intend to get involved, even indirectly, to help bring the parties back to the table and a resolution. During the 2006 standoff that ended in a brief strike, it took direct intervention by then-Chair Lee Walker and Mayor Will Wynn to broker a deal. Asked about that possibility, Crews commented that the Cap Metro board, "as part of a separate entity, is not and should not be part of the negotiation process."

Only Leander Mayor John Cowman and newly installed board member Mike Manor returned my calls. Manor deferred specific comment to more experienced board members but did say that if either labor or management overreaches and "wins" the dispute, it could well result in a "lose-lose for the community." Cowman, by contrast, declared that the board has "all the confidence in the world in Terry Garcia Crews. She's doing a fantastic job. She reports to the board on how the negotiations are going. There are differences, and she's working through those with the union. I'm pleased as punch knowing that progress, we feel, is being made."

Cowman, of course, is official beneficiary of a spanking new Cap Metro rail line that will bring subsidized suburban commuters back and forth to Austin. He echoed Crews' assertion that management's final offer ("a wonderful package") has reached its budgetary limits and that while the offer might be restructured somewhat, the financials will not change. He also believes the board will not intervene. "It's that simple," Cowman said. "You're not going to see some mayor swooping in and saving the day. Nor do I believe a board member is going to do that. ... Lee Walker and Will Wynn and all this kind of stuff – it's grand and glorious, but I think this is going to be more business-oriented now. The facts are the facts."

"All in all," Cowman concluded, "I'm excited about the prospects of StarTran and the union coming together and Cap Metro being more of a family."

This week, union members are deciding if they and their actual families can afford another strike – for which they'll inevitably be blamed as greedy and ungrateful – or if they should instead accept management's offer. That offer appears basically to be standpat on wages (cost-of-living increases), a giveback on health insurance, new driver regs, and a new wage category that undermines the union.

In this economy, in which wage earners are under the gun – and StarTran management is explicitly declaring they "don't know how long" they can maintain the current offer – I certainly don't know what the members and their families should choose. But I would feel much better about their circumstances of their choice, and the eventual outcome, if we had more reason to believe the people nominally in charge of Cap Metro were paying better attention.

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Capital Metro, ATU Local 1091, Jay Wyatt, StarTran, Lee Walker, Will Wynn, Margaret Gomez

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