Monday, August 20, 2001 by

In Fact Daily

Jay Wyatt, union leader, UTC chair

Jay Wyatt, President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 and Chair of the Urban Transportation Commission, knows the transit business inside out. He started out in the early seventies as a school bus driver and soon went to work driving a UT shuttle bus. In 1978, he became a bus operator for Austin Transit. “I’ve been here since before the birth of Capital Metro,” says Wyatt.

He began to get involved in the union when he noticed that “our employees weren’t getting the correct representation,” and was soon elected vice-president of Austin’s ATU Local, which at the time was run from the officers’ homes. “There was no central filing system, no personnel files, nothing. There was no structure. When there was a dispute, we had no records to work with.” After five years, Wyatt was elected president. He now presides over an executive board of eight people and a network of ten shop stewards. The 574 members of the Local include big bus operators, van operators, sedan drivers, parts clerks, mechanics, service employees and building maintenance technicians.

With better organization and an office on Airport Boulevard, Wyatt has been able to refine ATU Local 1091’s negotiations with StarTran, the private company that operates much of Capital Metro’s service. “When I came on, it was just about wage increases, not benefits. We started focusing on dental, life and health insurance, to give members more choices. We now have disability and short-term disability insurance. The pension plan was a very critical thing. Nobody paid attention to pension, and we’ve increased pension benefits 300 percent. Plus we’ve been pretty successful negotiating good contracts. We’ve been averaging 3 percent wage increases per year.”

Aside from negotiating contract labor agreements, Wyatt’s main responsibility involves resolving disputes between employees and StarTran. Contract interpretations are the main type of dispute, and it’s in union members’ best interest that resolution comes during mediation. “Our membership is assessed through union dues for arbitration or any legal action where the taxpayers pay for Cap Metro’s legal fees. So, you could say we have to pay twice if there’s legal action, as members and as taxpayers. We try to work things out between the parties, behind the scene, mediating or filing grievances, but we have to go public occasionally.”

There are two common battlegrounds, says Wyatt. “Management decides to change their mind after they’ve negotiated something,” referring to such cases as the 1999 ATU Local 1091 suit against StarTran for contract breach on provision of retirement benefits. He continues, “Or there’s a lack of professionalism in management, how they enforce policies on disparate treatment of employees.”

What often complicates matters is that Capital Metro, though not explicitly involved in labor contracts, is often involved by the agency’s actions. For example, on August 13, ATU Local 1091 met with managers to attempt to resolve a dispute over the split-run, spread-pay penalty. Bus operators often have their runs split so that there is a long break between half-shifts, making their workday often last twelve hours when their pay is only for eight. While this may appear to be a simple conflict between employee and employer, Capital Metro is definitely involved, as its Planning Department is responsible for splitting the runs.

Another recent issue is a conflict over the method with which StarTran recouped a $250,000 overpayment of overtime salary to bus operators. Referring to StarTran, Wyatt explains, “Here you are acting like a gangster or loan shark trying to recoup this money as though the money was (knowingly) borrowed. Transit employees live real close to their paycheck, and they can’t afford to pay large sums of money out for something they weren’t aware of.”

Wyatt also spends time as Chairman of the Urban Transportation Commission, which makes suggestions to the City Council on roadway construction and expansion projects. The Committee’s role is limited, though. “We can’t start or stop roadway issues, we just make recommendations.” Wyatt doesn’t feel that traffic congestion has been adequately addressed. “Traffic light synchronization is a big thing, letting more cars flow on the more heavily traveled roads. Also, when you look at overall transport, light rail should be a major focus. I’ve been a lot of places that have light rail, and it works. It’s been a dream of mine, and it would provide more jobs for us.” Wyatt also indicated that an expanded role for the commission in the realm of construction-related street closings and re-routings would be of benefit to the city.

Wyatt was born in Houston in 1952 and raised in Jasper. He came to Austin in 1970 from Ft. Belvoir, Virginia with an army buddy. He has a grown daughter who lives in Pflugerville. When asked what he likes to do most in his off hours, he proudly proclaims, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing!”

County Commissioners hear

Public, staff on bond options

Commissioners must weigh needs, tax hikes

Travis County Commissioners got an earful from both sides Friday on how much taxpayers are really willing to pay for roads and other proposed projects. Charles Akins, the chair of the Bond Citizens Advisory Committee, presented updated figures for each category, which features $194 million for roads, including $66 million for SH 130 and $32 million for SH 45 and FM 1826, considered as one item. The committee also recommended $38 million for parks, $7 million for drainage and flood control and $5 million for bridge replacement projects.

Several representatives of the committee spoke in favor of the entire package, but Akins assured commissioners the group would support the court regardless of the package they choose. Commissioners are scheduled to make that decision at tomorrow’s regular meeting.

Staunch highway supporter John Lewis said, “A lot was made recently of a poll that was done by the Real Estate Council (of Austin) and whether this committee used that poll to determine how much money we would allocate for these projects. That is simply not the case.” Lewis added that the poll, which showed widespread support for additional highway bonds, “reinforces what this committee came to on this own though. If we don’t address these projects now, five years from now we’re going to be further in the hole with the growth that’s occurring in this region.” Lewis lives in Pct. 3. Walter Timberlake, longtime leader in the Travis County Democratic Party, pleaded with commissioners to keep the bond package low. Timberlake, who lives in Pct. 4, said many elderly citizens, as well as young families in his precinct, cannot afford an increase in taxes. He warned that any tax increase could mean loss of a home for those living on the edge. He told commissioners, “I am supporting somewhere between $80 and 90 million,” which is the dollar amount that would not cause a tax increase. Commissioners have received a resolution from South Austin Democrats which asked the court to set the bond election for the lower amount and resist a tax increase.

After committee members spoke, commissioners heard from Joe Giselman, director of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department. Giselman said the staff “tried to prioritize the list . . . to identify the projects driven by demand, by safety influenced somewhat by the public testimony.” With that in mind, he said, the staff created a “short list” of $147 million, including the costs of bond issuance. He noted that the lower amount is twice the size of the 1997 bond election, “which we completed in four years,” and equal to the 1984 bond election, which took five years to complete.

Commissioners also heard from representatives of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, RECA, and other pro-bond groups. After that, representatives of environmental organizations presented objections to the package.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Unknown candidate to announce for Senate . . . Democrat Ed Cunningham will announce at 10 a.m. Tuesday that he intends to run against Senator Phil Gramm. Cunningham was an MVP for the Texas Longhorns . . . Closer to home . . . Entrepreneur Mark Tschurr said last week he might be a candidate for Mayor in November. Tschurr, who is on the board of directors of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said, “Democracy is not served” when only one candidate runs for an office. He said he is working with Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions on “aggressively fighting corporate subsidies,” through his fledgling organization Taxpayers Against Corporate Subsidies. The web site for the group is currently under development, he said . . . More likely to run. . . Council Member Beverly Griffith last week sent out a newsletter entitled “Beverly’s Briefings.” This week, Griffith, who just returned from a cool week in Colorado, plans to release a list of her accomplishments. In addition, she said she has created a document that will serve as “a framework for a community dialog about the future.” Griffith is also rumored to be meeting with mayoral candidate and former Council Member Gus Garcia today or tomorrow. Griffith told In Fact Daily that she would make a decision about entering the mayoral fray within the next 10 days or so . . . Subdivision ordinance coming back? . . The City Council is scheduled once again to look at changes to the subdivision ordinance, with two alternatives being presented again this week. The most important difference between the two is that the staff would provide incentives for reducing residential street lengths and widths, improved pedestrian connections and elimination of dead-end streets, while the Planning Commission recommended that changes be mandatory. The Council listened to presentations on the two plans in March, but deferred action. Austan Librach, director of the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department, said staff and former members of the Planning Commission have been working on the new ordinance for about three years . . . I-35 argument tonight. . . The Urban Transportation Commission could have a livelier meeting than usual tonight, if the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) show up to argue with commissioners about whether to recommend that the city hire “a consultant to study bicycle and pedestrian safety and access on Interstate 35 and suggest improvements.” YCT Vice Chairman Marc Levin sent out a press release, which compares the proposal to “hiring a consultant to study boat access and safety in the Sahara Desert. . . The fact that something so nutty is even being proposed is an example of why many people call Austin ‘The People’s Republic of Travis County.’” . . Aquifer meeting Tuesday . . . The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will host officials from local, state and federal agencies involved in issues affecting Texas aquifers beginning at 9 a.m. tomorrow. The group hopes to identify research projects that would be useful to policy makers, resource managers and the public for the Edwards Aquifer and its associated ecosystem. For more information, contact Jay Banner, at the University of Texas at Austin Environmental Science Institute, 471-5016, or e-mail: banner@mail.utexas.edu or contact Dee Lurry, USGS, 927-3571, or e-mail dllurry@usgs.gov. . . Petition drive celebration . . . The Travis County Green Party is hosting a party to mark the end of the Clean Campaigns for Austin petition drive tonight. They'll be gathering at Momo's on 6th Street at 7 p.m. The group plans to turn in its petitions on Wednesday to get “campaign-finance reform” measures on the ballot in November or next May. Details are available at the group's web site www.cleancampaigns.org.

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