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Watson intervened to end impasse between union, Cap Metro management

Monday, November 10, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A three-day old strike by union bus drivers and mechanics against Capital Metro came to an abrupt end Friday night, as members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 and StarTran management reported they had reached an agreement on a four-year contract. Union workers are set to return to work this morning.


Some were surprised that labor and management only took three days to settle what they have not been able to agree upon for more than two years. However, In Fact Daily has learned that the intervention of Council Members Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell and State Sen. Kirk Watson on Friday served to bring the dispute to a rapid resolution.


According to several sources, Watson began talking with the two sides late Friday afternoon. Jack Kirfman, who helped as a mediator for the union team, said Watson came to the negotiations about 6:30pm, talked with both sides, called in consultant Lynda Rife, and set a 9pm deadline for an agreement.


“It was phenomenal,” Kirfman said.  “We went in there in the morning and Jay (Wyatt, ATU President) and Terry (Garcia Crews, manager of StarTran) met all morning and in the afternoon.” Although it went well for a while, at the end of the afternoon the two sides seemed no closer to resolution. 


Watson said his role was to get the two sides to work together.


“I heard from both Mike and Lee that things seemed to be off track,” Watson said. “I give great credit to the union for being sophisticated about where they wanted to end up. I went down there, based on the monitoring I had done, believing it might be one of those situations—like I’ve seen in my mediation practice—it’s sometimes difficult to find a way to stop. I believe that while I was there, people were working to get clarity and I think we achieved that.”


Kirfman, a representative for the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said things changed rapidly when Watson arrived.


“Kirk basically let both sides know that we were going to have an agreement that night,” Kirfman said. ”He set a deadline of 9pm. He listened to the workers’ side, knowing the workers couldn’t afford to not get paid and the community couldn’t afford not to have transportation. Between him and Lynda, they could communicate to them that things could work out, and – lo and behold – things did work out. We were all home by 10 o’clock.”


Leffingwell said that despite preparations for his wedding on Saturday, Martinez actively worked to help resolve the dispute.


“Most of the credit goes to Mike,” Leffingwell, said. “He kicked this off last week with a press conference and I think he spent most of the week working on it. (Martinez) was spending a lot of time on the phone with the negotiators but he was also trying to have dinner with the priest who was going to marry them.”


Leffingwell said he contacted Sen. Watson Friday afternoon.


“He responded very quickly and went down there immediately. I was surprised at how quickly it got done,” he said. “They’re not divulging the details. My assessment is the union moved quite a bit. Their (management’s) movement was miniscule. I do think the transit workers were motivated by community interest and by assurances by a lot of people that in three years when negotiations happen again, this difficulty will not happen again.”


The union will present the contract — which is a four-year pact dated back to July 2007 – to its members this week. Details of the new contract were not released, but during negotiations, StarTran had offered the union a $1,000 lump sum payment for 2007, then 3 percent in 2008, 3 percent in 2009 and 3.25 percent in 2010. Union members would be responsible for larger copays on their insurance, though StarTran would still pay their premiums.


The drivers and mechanics have been working without a contact since July 2007.

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