The Austin Chronicle

Under the Bus: Next Stop at the ATU

By Michael King, January 11, 2013, News

When we last talked at length to Amalgamated Transit Union 1091 President Jay Wyatt, in mid-November, he said a drivers' and mechanics' strike was days away. "It definitely seems we're going to be heading towards a strike," Wyatt told the Chronicle on Nov. 12. "We have no choice. It will happen sometime this week." Wyatt said that negotiations between ATU 1091 and Capital Metro's latest subcontractor, Dallas-based McDonald Transit, were going badly, and he accused Cap Metro of driving the stalemate behind the scenes, effectively "pushing for a strike." Both Cap Metro and McDonald denied Wyatt's charges, and John Bartosiewicz, McDonald's managing director, insisted that negotiations with the union were slowly but steadily making progress.

Nearly two months later ... no, you didn't miss the strike. In retrospect, skeptics might well conclude the strike that never happened had a good deal to do with the inaugural Formula One race scheduled for that Nov. 16-18 weekend. The F1 events came and went without a strike, the transit response was quite successful (much to the credit of Cap Metro and its employees), and though neither side is talking at the moment, negotiations have been proceeding this month. Whether Wyatt's woofing just before the big event helped him at the contract table is unknown, but he has persistently charged that the subcontractor, in unspoken league with the agency, is bargaining in "bad faith" in order to force an impasse and thereby impose its own terms: most prominently, a "two-tier" wage system that would bring in new employees at a lower rate, damaging worker job security and undermining the union.

More recently, Wyatt told the Chronicle that current employees, once employed by former agency subcontractor StarTran, are now effectively in employment limbo because they are described as "terminated" by StarTran but are not yet under contract with McDonald – meaning that their credit histories, financial statuses, and even their potential applications for other jobs have been placed in jeopardy.

Presumably, these matters will be addressed in ongoing negotiations. On another front, not so readily addressed, is a lawsuit – against ATU, Wyatt, and seven other ATU employees and board members – filed last summer by former ATU administrative secretary Alice Harrison, who worked for the union from late 2007 until she was terminated in July 2010. Harrison's federal lawsuit, currently pending in the court of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, charges sexual and racial discrimination on the part of Wyatt and other ATU staff. Specifically, Harrison alleges that Wyatt and several other staffers made unwanted verbal and physical sexual advances to her, that other staffers used inflammatory racial language in her presence – including persistent use of the word "nigger" and intimidating references to the Ku Klux Klan – and that the union retaliated against her when she said she was willing to offer testimony against Wyatt in a 2010 sexual harassment investigation initiated by Cap Metro administrators. She's asking for back pay and punitive damages.

Harrison filed her suit last July, and thus far the union's legal responses have been primarily procedural – broadly, that her suit attempts to cobble a racial discrimination claim out of what is in fact a sexual harassment claim, such that it is either misapplying the relevant law or else falls outside the statute of limitations. Amid the procedural back and forth (Harrison is represented by San Antonio lawyers), ATU's longtime attorney, Glenda Pittman, withdrew because Harrison says she may want to call her as a witness. The union is now being represented by Ted Smith of Cornell, Smith, and Mierl – Smith told the Chronicle his firm (which more often represents employers) has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

That leaves to speculation any substantive or specific union response to Harrison's charges. It's not beyond belief that somebody at ATU might engage in sexual harassment – that was the charge made against Wyatt by Cap Metro administrative employees in 2010, when they accused him of unacceptably coarse language in meetings. But the breadth and extent of Harrison's claims, and the number of staff members she accuses of everything from direct physical advances to repeated racial epithets – among mostly minority staff members – somewhat strains credulity. In any case, for the next few weeks, the lawsuit has moved to "alternative dispute resolution," and if it can't be resolved via some sort of settlement, it won't make Sparks' docket until April 25, 2014. By that time, we should at least know whether ATU 1091 has gone on strike – or has found a way to resolve its contract differences with McDonald Transit.

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