Point Austin: A Few Choice Words for Capital Metro
Wyatt firing just the latest in string of management fiascoes
I don't believe TxDOT and the highway lobby recruited double agents to run Cap Metro into the ground and thereby discredit forever even the possibility of serious mass transit in Central Texas – it only seems that way. It's unlikely that laid-off screenwriters from The X-Files are responsible for the inexplicable delays that have made the agency's agoraphobic commuter train a public laughingstock. And as Lee Nichols reports this week, Cap Metro's woeful budget predicament may be largely a byproduct of the recession, although Fred Gilliam and his staff's capacity to make a bad situation worse is matched only by their inability to explain themselves. All of this is bad enough and shows no sign of getting better any time soon.
But the firing of Jay Wyatt takes the cake.
As reported in "Let's Fire the Union President!," StarTran General Manager Terry Garcia Crews fired the ATU Local 1091 president Friday from his driver's position, nominally for failing to comply with the Cap Metro subcontractor's sexual harassment policies. She's not likely to get away with it – the charges are subject to arbitration, and their substance appears to be laughable. The real reason for the firing seems to be to tar Wyatt with the vague and highly inflammatory charge of "sexual harassment," and then let people imagine what that might actually mean. If that blackens the reputation of an aggressive and successful union leader, well, it's just a coincidence – this is simply a private employment matter concerning "proper conduct in the workplace."
As he has charged many times before, Wyatt calls the firing "all part of a process to try to bust the union." Many folks still believe he's just woofing. Yet Cap Metro has done its best to keep unionized workers off its precious rail project and has been persistently transferring bus routes (and unionized drivers) to lower-paying contractors, effectively putting in place a union-breaking, two-tier wage system that it had not been able to achieve via collective bargaining. And now this – firing the union president on unspecified claims by anonymous management employees, supposed adults who apparently just discovered they can't bear to hear profane words uttered in their presence.
Enough is enough. It certainly sounds like union-busting to me.
Nothing to Say or Do
Almost as bad as the charges themselves have been the predictable official responses. Crews, of course, calls this a "confidential personnel matter" and won't discuss the actual charges, having provided to Wyatt only a generalized summary of his supposed offenses and no opportunity to question his accusers. Gilliam, who recruited Crews to run StarTran (knowing she had a reputation as a union-buster) and who backstage-managed the last round of union negotiations, claims that it would be "improper" for him to be involved in a subcontractor's employee policy and is only "disappointed that it came to this." In other words, the state-mandated fiction that union employees don't work for Cap Metro is being used to mean Crews and StarTran are subject to no oversight. "I have no involvement at all," says Gilliam.
At the Cap Metro board level, it's little better, although admittedly, under the law the board must indeed tread lightly on direct personnel matters. City Council and board member Mike Martinez apologized for not being able to say much: "I understand Jay has strong feelings. But what's paramount at this point is the issue, of whether sexual harassment took place, is completely and thoroughly investigated and addressed." He said he hadn't talked to Wyatt but will continue to follow the matter and presumes Wyatt will appeal and more information will become available. Asked about the quality of the board's management team, Martinez answered drily: "I'm not going to make any comment on that. We can always stand for improvement."
Worst of all was Travis County Commissioner and board Chair Margaret Gomez, who said not only that the board has no personnel authority, it has nothing to do with StarTran at all, and all for the protection of employees, "so that they can unionize without any interference from the Capital Metro agency or board." Not only did Gomez argue that the "horrible, horrible setup" relieves her of any responsibility for what happens to employees, it prevents her from even attempting to discover what's been done to Wyatt.
"It's not my business," Gomez twice insisted, saying by not commenting she is "protecting Jay's rights." "He needs to deal with his employer," Gomez concluded, "and they need to investigate the charges ... and I hope that they do everything lawfully."
So according to Gomez, Crews should review her own actions and decide whether she acted correctly in firing Wyatt. That should work out quite fairly.
Sexual harassment is indeed a very serious matter – and that is precisely why it shouldn't be claimed indiscriminately whenever somebody feels offended at work. If, as Wyatt claims, what's actually at issue here is coarse language or jokes to which nobody objected at the time – to insist adult women must be protected from profanity is nothing more than sexism as official company policy. Judging from the (spring) timing and the management sources of the complaints, it seems more likely that Gilliam and Crews were angry about the union's legislative lobbying against them and were trying a counterattack.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell campaigned in part against Cap Metro management and doesn't like what he's heard. While acknowledging that he doesn't know "all the details," he continued, "I certainly wouldn't want to accuse anybody of doing something like that [the firing] in retribution, but it's got to have that appearance at this point to me." Moreover, he noted what should be obvious even to Cap Metro management and its board – the utter lack of due process. "It seems to me that there ought be some kind of hearing before they took that step," Leffingwell said. "I don't know any of the details, but I'll just say it's very concerning."
Instead, it looks like it will be up to the National Labor Relations Board to give Wyatt – along with a brace of related unfair labor practice charges – a fair hearing. As Fred Gilliam might say, it's disappointing that it had to come to this.
It's a downright goddamn shame.