The Austin Chronicle

ATU vs. Martinez: 'Better a Dog' for Council

By Josh Rosenblatt, April 13, 2012, News

Presumably, every endorsement a candidate for public office doesn't get stings the ego. Some must sting more than others.

Take two-term Place 2 incumbent City Council Member Mike Martinez who, during recent weeks, has been piling up endorsements from all over the Austin political spectrum. Both the Austin police and firefighters' associations have thrown their support behind him, as have the Austin Progressive Coalition, the Austin Tejano Democrats, the League of Bicycling Voters, the Stonewall Democrats, Central Aus­tin Democrats, and so on. All told, no fewer than 15 organizations have endorsed the former mayor pro tem in his quest for a third term, with the election a month away.

But for Martinez, who is both the chairman of the Capital Metro Board of Directors and former head of the Austin Firefighters Association (thus familiar with the pains of both management and labor), the endorsement of his opponent, Laura Pressley, by local Amalgamated Transit Union 1091 must be particularly bruising, right? An indictment of both his managerial abilities and his devotion to organized labor?

Martinez says it's nothing of the kind.

"I'm not surprised, nor am I upset," Mar­tinez tells me. "This is a symptom of a two-decade process. It's not personal, and it's not based on a decision I made. This is just the end of a long process not requested by [the Cap Metro board]."

In fact, Martinez most likely lost the ATU endorsement three years ago, when the union pushed for a state Sunset Review audit to get the transit authority's financial house in order. The audit resulted in belt-tightening at the transit authority and a new union-busting state law, Senate Bill 650, requiring Cap Metro to either transition its employees to a private contractor or make them direct employees of quasi-state agency Cap Metro (rather than employees of current subcontractor StarTran).

Recognizing that under the public (direct employment) option, they would lose their right to strike, ATU members rejected it, and chose instead to negotiate the private-contractor route. Earlier this year, ATU and Cap Metro came up with employment core terms for such a private contract that would ensure current wages, comparable health care benefits, and other working conditions for all union workers regardless of their eventual employer. But no agreement was reached on the issue of employee pension plans until last Friday, when an independent arbitrator determined that Cap Metro is not obligated to require a new contractor be bound by any terms of the transit authority's current retirement plan. According to ATU attorney Glenda Pittman, the decision is subject to appeal. And despite the arbitrator's ruling, Cap Metro offered to grant one year of service to each plan participant – beyond that, ATU would be on its own in negotiating its pensions.

To ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt, that outcome simply confirms that Martinez is not interested in doing right by Cap Metro employees, and that ATU was right to endorse Pressley. (The ATU also effectively blocked a Martinez endorsement by the Central Labor Council, which abstained.) "The Cap Metro board is making up for its financial mismanagement on the backs of its workers," Wyatt says. "We whistle-blew and they said we caused the problem. I'm not surprised at all by the arbitrator's decision. He was hand-picked by Cap Metro. If you have a stacked deck against you, are you surprised when you lose?"

Wyatt says his union's support of Pressley is genuine, but that it also reflects the general distaste membership has for Martinez. "Mike Martinez has been behind this new labor structure from the beginning," Wyatt says. "He may say he's a Dem­ocrat, but he looks like a Republican. It's all a bunch of bullshit. We believe Laura Press­ley is a nice lady who will do well, but this is a protest endorsement. If a dog had run against Mar­tinez, we would have endorsed that dog."

Martinez says he understands the union's discontent, but says they need to understand that they brought it upon themselves – and upon the entire transit agency – when they demanded that audit in 2009. "I understand their frustration: They're not getting what they want," Martinez says. "But when are they going to accept responsibility for their involvement in this? The Sunset Com­mis­sion reviewed everything about us, and we had to sit there and take it. There's no way we would want to be dressed down in public like that. We didn't ask for any of this. The position they're in is at their own request."

As for the arbitrator's decision last Friday, Martinez sees it as further proof that the board has made, and continues to make, concessions it doesn't have to in order to maintain the best working conditions it can in the current political climate, while the union refuses to meet the board halfway. "The arbitration shows that Cap Metro is not obligated to offer the pension conditions we have as part of the settlement – still, we did it," Martinez says. "We've been in arbitration since March, and we've offered multiple concessions, including the one year of service, which will bring all employees one year closer to retiring with a full pension. They've rejected all settlement offers.

"The best thing for the [transit] authority to do financially is to carry over the workers' contracts without any of these benefits. But I'm trying to ensure the transition is smooth by maintaining a stable workforce and employee morale, by taking care of both our workforce and the agency as a whole. I don't know what else to do to bridge this gap."

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.