Point Austin: No Choice

When bosses say their hands are tied, handcuffs follow

Point Austin
A few years ago, the late Milton Friedman visited the Texas Legislature, ostensibly on a humanitarian mission in support of his Foundation for Educational Choice, a voucher-promoting operation that helped lay the ideological groundwork for moving public money into private schools. Speaking to a rapt gathering of mostly Republican lawmakers, Friedman solemnly explained that most of the problems with public education could be traced to the baleful power of the teachers' unions, which were dictating educational policy to legislators and school administrators alike, strangling innovation, and making it impossible to run schools efficiently and within reasonable state budgets.

I was often reminded of Friedman's prescience during this year's legislative session, when the all-powerful Texas teachers unions made it impossible to balance the state budget, forced legislators to raid the Rainy Day Fund, and prevented school districts from making the hard choices of cutting back on highly paid, feather-bedded teaching staffs – and instead choosing to drive property taxpayers into the poorhouse.

Wait a minute.

That must have been in another country, or maybe on another planet. On this one, the Republican-dominated Texas Lege – like its counterparts in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and, of course, throughout the South – did its level best to balance the budget by slashing public education and defending its emergency funds against all reason (including the needs of Texas students), and despite persistent statewide protest made it easier for school districts to cut teacher pay and benefits, lay off teachers wholesale, and undermine any attempt by teachers to maintain due process or collective bargaining rights. Not exactly a labor juggernaut.

Armed and Dangerous

We were once again reminded of the imposing power of Texas labor unions Monday evening, when the Capital Metro board bowed to the latest wrinkle in state labor law and moved to privatize (i.e., outsource to private contractors) all of its current labor contracts. That includes the StarTran agency contract, which until now has allowed (as required under federal law) collective bargaining and related labor rights to the members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, about 70% of the current employees. The Legislature (under Senate Bill 650) had in fact given the board a Hobson's choice: Either bring all the workers directly under Cap Metro employment and therefore remove their collective bargaining rights, or else privatize them all after "competitive bidding" by subcontractors – meaning such bidders will likely look to win the bids by cutting wages and benefits.

Now we wait for the other shoe to fall – or, if you're a Cap Metro driver or mechanic or other union member (no matter how long you've been on the job), wait to see who the board will choose to low-bid your continuing services, and try to determine your options. I was lent another metaphor this week by Texas AFL-CIO Legal Director Rick Levy, who attended the Cap Metro meeting in solidarity with the union and had some sardonic comments in its aftermath. "The Legislature handed Cap Metro a loaded gun," Levy said, "and last night was the cocking of the gun." Union members and their families will now have to contemplate the caliber of the weapon pointed in their direction.

Cap Metro board Chair Mike Martinez and President/CEO Linda Watson made reassuring remarks about fully considering the needs of employees, but the test will begin when those subcontractor bids come in, as well as the responses of the board – and the larger community.

Open Questions

Levy acknowledged a certain amount of sympathy for the board's predicament – as was the case for public education and following a long Texas tradition, the Legislature determined that workers and their rights are expendable, and simply imposed on the board the choice of how it would carry out that assignment. The union declined to exchange collective bargaining and strike rights for "meet-and-confer" privileges – understandably, said Levy, the workers "prefer not to beg" – and the only alternative the state allowed was to outsource the labor contracts.

Levy went on to argue that trying to make up for Cap Metro's previous poor financial decisions (the purpose of the earlier Sunset Commission report) at the expense of its workers is "simply the wrong way to go." "These are important jobs in Austin," he continued, "core jobs that allow workers and their families to build stable, middle-class lifestyles. Many of these workers are workers of color, and more broadly, those jobs represent a significant economic engine for the whole city." The Legislature and then the board, he suggested, appear to be saying, "We can't afford to continue in this way."

Austinites need to start asking themselves this: What is the purpose of an economy, if not to provide permanent, sustainable employment to our citizens – enabling families, neighborhoods, and the whole community to thrive? Or is its purpose to make certain that labor is available as cheaply as possible for private employers, whatever effect such a standard might have on citizens, families, communities?

When these Cap Metro contracts go out to bid and the union eventually responds, the community will get a chance to answer that question. I'd like to be able to say that in a "progressive" city, the answer – to stand with the workers – would be obvious. But in the current local political atmosphere – when economic development and job promotion as necessary functions of government are routinely dismissed as so much pro-growth propaganda, and so-called "progressive" candidates for public office can dismiss "unions and developers" in a single breath as nothing more than mutually conspiring enemies against the public interest – it's difficult to know how progressive a community this really is, and its willingness to accept the real costs of solidarity.

"All of this [national attacks on workers rights] has been given an aura of inevitability," Levy said. "But it's not inevitable – it's the outcome of very conscious decisions." And maybe the Cap Metro decisions and their effects, he suggested, will serve to "galvanize labor in Austin." One would hope, as well, that the situation might serve to galvanize the whole community. We'll see.

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Milton Friedman, Capital Metro, StarTran, Rick Levy, ATU Local 1091

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