The Austin Chronicle

Labor Changes Irk Transit Workers

By Lee Nichols, July 1, 2011, News

Nobody's ever really been happy with Capital Metro's convoluted labor structure. And now, nobody seems very happy with the solution either. Nonetheless, the Capital Metro board of directors voted unanimously on Monday to move forward with that solution, despite uncertain legal territory ahead. Beginning in September 2012, all Cap Metro bus drivers and mechanics will be employed by private contractors.

Since 1991, Cap Metro has been between a rock and a hard place on collective bargaining: State law forbids government employers from engaging in collective bargaining, but certain provisions of federal law mandate that transit workers must retain collective bargaining if transit agencies want to continue receiving federal money. To get around this dilemma, Cap Metro created StarTran, a shell corporation that serves as the primary labor contractor for the agency, employing about 70% of its workforce and allowing it to claim it is not involved in any labor negotiations. The other 30% are employed by actual private contractors.

But state legislation passed this year, aimed at reforming Cap Metro's financial situation, directed the agency to save money via one of two options: Either bring all the workers directly under the agency's employ (which would mean giving up collective bargaining rights) or contract out all the labor to truly private companies. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 said it wouldn't accept the former, so the board voted for the latter.

The problem is that the union doesn't care for that option either, as it could mean lower wages and benefits – and that, the union says, could violate federal law. According to what is known as provision 13(c) of federal transit law, if oversight of labor transfers from one entity to another, existing rights and compensation must transfer with them. Union members showed up in force at Monday's meeting to warn the board that it needs to tread carefully regarding this option.

"They don't have to do what the bill says because federal laws trump state laws," said ATU President Jay Wyatt at a rally before the meeting. Referring to strikes that occurred in 2005 and 2008, Wyatt said: "These are the same things they've been trying to do all along. Each time, they pushed us into a strike. The only difference this time is they got the state Legislature to support them."

"We're trying to figure out what we did wrong," union member Bill Kweder told the board. "It's no secret that Cap Met has been mismanaged. ... But that was the management of Capital Metro. Why is the first place you're looking [to rebuild Cap Metro's monetary reserves] the workers – the people that have actually done the work? What did we do wrong to deserve this?"

Board members tried to assure the union members that the decision was not anti-worker – that it was partially thrust upon them by the state (in fact, the Lege created the current board structure last year as a first step to reform) and by fiscal reality.

"I think this is the start of a process not the end," said the board chair, Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez – a former president of Austin's firefighters' union. "We absolutely value our work force, whether you believe it or not. ... I took a position on this board in 2007, and the main reason and the only reason was because of this one issue, and I was asked to take this position by the president of your local.

"I'm not gonna argue there were some mistakes made at this agency, over and over again," Martinez continued. "This board took over last January with the mission to rectify those mistakes, to make things better at this agency, and to make it long-term sustainable so that nobody loses their job. ... Nobody here is upset with our employees."

A study by Texas A&M's Texas Trans­porta­tion Institute estimated that with the private option, Cap Metro could save $72.1 million over the next nine years – nearly double what the in-house option would save. But that estimate was based on lower market wages and benefits. StarTran currently pays better than Cap Metro's other contractors. The union says it will challenge those reduced benefits at the federal level.

"They have a choice to implement the decision legally or not," ATU attorney Glenda Pitt­man said after the meeting. "Which means requiring any new contractor to take on StarTran's wages and benefits and health care and all the other conditions of employment as the baseline from which to have collective bargaining."

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.