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Cap Metro workers reject contract, authorize strike

Thursday, August 21, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The union representing most of Capital Metro’s bus drivers and mechanics voted 405-45 on Wednesday to reject the agency’s latest contract offer and authorized union leaders to call a strike. Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt said late Wednesday that the union would give StarTran, a subsidiary of Cap Metro, an opportunity to return to the bargaining table before calling for a walkout.


“We never had any plans to strike, and that’s not our desire,” Wyatt said. “Capital Metro is trying to push us out on strike. We have not had any negotiations on this contract whatsoever.”


Council Member Mike Martinez, who serves on the Capital Metro Board of Directors, said, “We have more work to do and I am committed to continuing the negotiations that reaches a fair and equitable agreement and averts any potential for a strike. Our bus operators provide a critical and valuable service to the citizens of Austin and we must do all that we can to keep that service in operation.” Before his election to the Council three years ago, Martinez was the president of the Austin Firefighters Association.


Capital Metro, for its part, said in a news release Wednesday that it had plans in place to keep many of the most heavily traveled routes operating, but at a lower level of service, if the bus drivers and mechanics walk out. A strike against StarTran would not directly affect the University of Texas shuttle bus system, which is operated by a different Capital Metro subsidiary under a different contract. However, shuttle bus drivers could decide to strike in sympathy with their StarTran counterparts.


Adam Shaivitz, spokesman for Capital Metro, said late Wednesday that the transit agency hoped that the labor problems could be worked out between ATU 825 members and StarTran. The most recent contract between the two expired more than a year ago.


“Should there be a work stoppage at any time, Capital Metro is prepared to operate on a limited schedule, he said. “Since the negotiations are between StarTran and the union, we assume they (StarTran) will notify us officially tomorrow. But it’s our understanding that StarTran would be open to continuing contract discussions.”


However, Wyatt accused Capital Metro General Manager Fred Gilliam of illegally managing negotiations from behind the scenes, and said he wants to force the union into a walkout.


“We know that Mr. Gilliam is negotiating all this from a back room,” he said. “He had put figureheads from StarTran at the negotiating table. They don’t speak. They don’t talk. They don’t say anything. They just shove a piece of paper across the desk. It’s all Capital Metro’s negotiations, which is illegal under Texas law.”


Wyatt is referring to a law that prohibits government agencies from negotiating with unions. To work around the prohibition, Capital Metro contracts with outside management firms such as StarTran, which technically employs the bus drivers and mechanics. Capital Metro officials have consistently claimed that they have no hand in negotiations between the subsidiaries and union workers.


Wyatt said union management had strongly recommended that the rank-and-file reject the contract offer, saying it was a step backward. StarTran was offering a $1,000 lump-sum signing bonus, with an immediate 3.5 percent raise and 3.25 percent a year for two years after that.


Wyatt said the union was unhappy with a one-time bonus instead of a salary increase to cover the time the union has worked without a negotiated contract, and said the contract needed to provide better health care coverage.


Labor problems between Capital Metro and the Union began more than three years ago, with the ATU contract expiring in July 2005. ATU workers staged a one-day walkout in September 2005, and after four months of negotiations, signed a 17-month agreement that was meant to tide both sides over until July 2007. ATU has been working without a contract since that time.


Wyatt said he would not immediately set a deadline for a strike. He said he would officially notify StarTran of the vote with a letter on Thursday, and invite them to reopen talks.


“We are going to go whichever way they push us,” he said. “If they don’t want to negotiate, they could push us out to strike.”


Capital Metro has posted its plans for a reduced service schedule in case of strike on its website,

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