What do you do if you’re overseeing a public transportation authority that doesn’t control cost overruns on a commuter rail project and nearly exhausts its financial reserves? If you’re the Texas Legislature, you punish the authority by trying to cut its workers’ wages and breaking their union.
Capital Metro provides public transportation service to Austin and its outlying suburbs. In 2004, it began building a commuter rail line. The project incurred a number of setbacks that doubled its original estimated cost of $60 million. By 2008 Capital Metro had nearly exhausted its financial reserves, which led to Texas Legislature’s Sunset Commission to conduct a review of the agency. As a result of the review, the Legislature in May passed SB 650, which seeks to cut the pay of Capital Metro’s unionized workforce and break their union. Capital Metro seems more than willing to comply with the Legislature’s mandate.
“Capital Metro is now attacking us again with support from the SB 650, which is designed to take away our federally protected rights to collective bargaining, reduce our hard-earned and fought for over the years wages, benefits, and retirement,” said Jay Wyatt, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, which represents Capital Metro workers. “They are trying to push the union into agreeing to become public employees and give up all our rights or they will contract out our jobs to a contractor who would not honor our collective bargaining agreement.”
Capital Metro, a regional governmental agency, began operating the Austin area’s public transportation system in the early 1990s. It took over operation from a private contractor that had a collective bargaining contract with Local 1091. Texas law forbids public agencies from bargaining collectively with its workers, but federal law requires that collective bargaining agreements must stay in place when a public transportation system switches hands. To get around this problem, Capital Metro created a private entity, Star Tran, to operate the system and manage its workers.
The arrangement worked well until Capital Metro in 2004 launched its commuter rail project and tried to divert money that would have gone toward wages and benefits into the project. Two strikes resulted, one in in 2005, the other in 2008. Both ended in stand offs.
In the meantime, the cost of the rail project increased substantially, and the commuter line was two years late in getting started, resulting first in a Sunset review and next in the passage of SB 650.
SB 650 requires Capital Metro to abolish Star Tran and either seek bids by private contractors for the service now provided by Star Tran or manage the service by itself.
Both options are bad for Capital Metro workers. If Capital Metro takes over management of services, its workers will lose their collective bargaining rights, which union workers fear will drive down their wages. If a private contractor takes over management, the company would likely try to cut wages to boost its profits.
“This move on the part of Capital Metro will not only hurt our members and their families, it will hurt our riding public because the quality of service would be reduced.” Wyatt said.
To voice its concerns, Local 1091 called for a demonstration at the June 27 Capital Metro Board meeting at which the board was to decide between the two options. The demonstration was big and spirited. Local 1091 urged the board to reject both options.
ATU members from Dallas and San Antonio were there to show their support as were members of the Texas State Employees Union, National Nurses United, CWA Local 6132, Iron Workers Union, Workers Defense Project, Education Austin, and AFSCME.
“When the Cap Metro board meeting began, most of the crowd went on into the building, and many went in to the board room until there was no more space,” said Leslie Cunningham, a TSEU activist at the demonstration. “Security was light; they just asked the folks in the hallway to keep the noise down.”
Despite the protest, the Capital Metro board voted to seek a private contractor to operate the system, but the fight to protect wages and benefits isn’t over. “The union is committed to (taking its case to the federal government) if it becomes necessary,” said Glenda Pittman, an Austin lawyer who represents Local 1091, to the Austin American Statesman. One option would be for Local 1091 to file objections with the federal government to block Capital Metro’s requests for federal grant money.
Wyatt said that whatever action the union decides to take, it will be done to protect the interest of Capital Metro workers and the people who rely on their services. “We’re here looking out for our people, and I mean all our people,” Wyatt told KUT News. “The citizens of Austin, the people that work at Capitol Metro, the bus operators, mechanics, and the riders, everyone’s affected by what happens.”