Labor Advocate Online

KC Transit Workers Stuck With Another Wage Freeze
by Bill Onasch

In small numbers (less than twenty percent), and with bitter resignation, members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1287 have approved a new twenty-month agreement with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (ATA).

The new contract provides for a one-time bonus of 412 dollars (part-time workers get half of that.) The basic operator wage rate—from which all other rates are calculated—will be raised 65 cents in April of 2004. Aside from a modest increase in tool allowance for mechanics, and a shorter wait for severance pay, there are no other economic improvements. Nor were there any substantial changes in contact language. The agreement runs through August, 2004.

This short, unusual contract reflects the dismal financial situation of the ATA. Former general manager Dick Davis managed to exhaust all reserve funds during better times a few years ago. Largely dependent on a half-cent sales tax collected by Kansas City, Missouri, revenues have plummeted. Little, if any assistance can be expected from state sources. Federal subsidies can be used for capital spending but not operational expenses. There have been deep cuts in transit service and more are expected. Of course fewer bus trips have meant fewer riders and reduced fare revenue. The system is in a free fall headed for total collapse.

This contract is basically a holding operation. Both sides are waiting to see what, if anything, can be done to reverse the financial situation.

The union negotiating committee argued that this deal was better than taking a chance with our only other option—so-called interest arbitration. Most of us concluded they, unfortunately, were probably right. The last time the union went to an arbitrator to resolve a contract we were stuck with a one-year wage freeze—and the poverty-pleading ATA was given the right to downgrade the pay of dozens of operator runs. Undoubtedly we could expect no better from an arbiter this time around and it could even be worse.

This crisis possibly could have been avoided, or at least its impact softened, if the union had been working with others in the community over the years to build an effective transit advocacy movement. That wasn't done.

Defeated attempts to pass referenda billed as transit expansion plans were really developer schemes that failed to build on growing protransit sentiment. Labor and community advocates had no real role in these efforts other than being expected to become foot soldiers to mobilize voters.

Those in the working class community who are solely dependent on bus service for transportation are hurting. And, at a time when fuel prices are rocketing upwards, substantially fewer transit alternative options are being offered to those with cars.

Once more, transit workers are shouldering most of the burden resulting from neglect and incompetence of government officials, regional planners, and ATA management. It is hard to believe that those who got us in to this mess can find an acceptable way out.

All useful public services are currently under attack across America. Nobody is going to do our fighting for us. Transit workers need to get together with teachers, and blue- and white-collar government workers, to mobilize a vigorous defense against this offensive.

Bill Onasch is an ATA bus driver, a member, and former Vice-President, of ATU Local 1287