KCATA, ATU 1287 Settle Contract
by Bill Onasch

On September 6, more than eight months after the expiration of their previous agreement, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 approved a new contract with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (ATA). Local 1287 President Marvin Shackelford was quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying 425 bus operators were pleased with the settlement. (No mention was made of how the maintenance and office members may have felt.) Certainly the vote results—154 in favor, 27 against—indicated members were prepared to live with it. But the fact that two-thirds of the membership declined to participate in the voting may reveal a certain lack of enthusiasm.

The previous contract was set by an interest arbitrator in 1996—and it was a disaster for the union. It included a one year wage freeze and granted the ATA the unlimited right to both create new service, and convert existing service, to smaller vehicles paying substandard wage rates.

The 1996 arbitration took place at a time when Metro service had dropped to an all-time low and federal funding for transit was being slashed. The ATA cried “poverty.”

Since then new funding sources—including assistance from the state of Missouri for the first time—have been secured. Ridership has increased dramatically. Fares were raised. There is much greater public interest in transit expansion. The labor market has become much tighter and the ATA is having difficulty filling positions at every level.

Because of the greatly altered conditions this time around many Local 1287 members were looking for a “pay back” contract that would include  pension improvements, substantial general wage increases, and at least a start toward closing the gap between the three different wage tiers among bus operators.

There was a debate about union strategy, and a hotly contested election for Local 1287 President, in the Spring of 1999. I was one of the candidates so I cannot claim to be a disinterested reporter. I stressed the importance of winning support for our reasonable bargaining positions in the rest of the labor movement and in the community at large. I advocated establishing membership committees to get the word out to the public as well as mobilizing our members in actions on the property. The Metro, after all, is a public service living mainly off public subsidies. Successful negotiations have to have a political character as well as talking across the table to the company lawyer. There is also a major threat of contracting out/privatization. However, I lost the election and there was little done to mobilize support either in the community or among the Local membership.

One tactic promoted unofficially by some officers did get the attention of both the company and public—calls to turn down overtime. The Metro cannot run without massive use of overtime. This partially successful campaign delayed installation of new fare boxes, kept some buses off the streets every day and—horror of horrors—forced sharp cutbacks in the Chiefs Express service to football games. But this half-hearted effort was too little and too late to budge the company negotiators out of their intransigent posture.

So what did we get?

The most significant gain our negotiators could point to was on pensions. The Metro Pension Fund is fueled by contributions from both employer and worker—six percent of wages by the ATA, three percent from full-time workers. (Part-time union members, except for those in the office seniority unit, are excluded from the pension plan.) Under the previous contract retiree benefits were based on one percent of average monthly earnings times years of service. Under the new agreement the multiplier goes to 1.28 percent—a hefty 28 percent increase.

However, this resulted not from company generosity—they are not contributing a single additional penny to the fund—nor from skillful negotiating. The explosive growth of the stock market had led to a huge increase in the worth of fund investments and a massive overfunding. The company simply agreed to let future retirees have some more of their money that had piled up in the fund. The ATA successfully resisted union proposals for easing earlier retirement.

Even with this 28 percent increase Metro pensions lag far behind the rest of the mass transit industry. A bus operator retiring with thirty years of service would likely draw only about 1200 dollars a month even with the improvements.

All wages at the Metro are tied to a percentage of the Bus Operator rate, paid to those operators with three or more years of service who drive full-size buses. This base rate goes up four percent the first year, and 3½ percent in the second and third years each. This means:

Class A Mechanics (110%) will get a 74-cent per hour increase moving up to $19.00 the first year

Bus Operators (100%) will get a 66-cent raise up to $17.27

These rates are not too far off from the industry standard. However, only about half of the Local's membership is in these two classifications. Dozens of operators fall into the Small Bus or MetroFlex classifications. They don't fare so well. Even though all operators must have a CDL, with passenger and air brake endorsements; have to be able to assist wheel-chair passengers in boarding and unboarding; are responsible for maintaining security and comfort on the bus; are expected to collect fares; are supposed to be able to cheerfully supply information to passengers; are required to maintain a schedule; and all this while driving safely and courteously—there are huge differentials in pay among them.

Small Bus Operators (75%) get 49¢ to move up to $12.95

MetroFlex Operators (55%) get 36¢ rising to a whopping $9.50

The Small Bus rate is well below the average blue collar wage. You'll have a tough time adequately supporting a family on $12.95 per hour. The MetroFlex wage is just simply a disgrace. Teen-aged pizza delivery drivers typically earn more than $9.50. This shameful substandard wage structure is now locked in for at least another three years.

Part-Time Benefits
The new contract codifies a benefit “cafeteria” plan, worth $120 a month,  that the company initiated in 1998 to try to attract and hold more part-time operators. Nothing new here.

There is a curious new benefit of sorts. Part-time members still will not be eligible for paid holidays. However, if they work on a holiday they will receive an extra three hours pay. I've yet to hear the reasoning for such a bizarre “benefit.”

A Concession to the Company
There was one give-back to the Authority. Historically there could be no temporary upgrades of Small Bus and MetroFlex operators to full size runs. The reason for this restriction was to prevent the company from short-staffing the full size work. But as the ATA converted more and more runs to Small Bus they ran into major problems with large charters and special events requiring full size buses and, especially, getting out the Chiefs Express. There are sometimes just not enough regular Operators available.

Of course one solution to this problem would be to overstaff the regular Operator positions and temporarily assign them, as needed, to Small Bus work. But that's not the company way. They demanded, and got, the right to temporarily upgrade Small Bus operators to full size buses for football games. The camel now has his nose in the tent.

A Missed Opportunity
Kansas City transit workers are not likely to have such favorable objective conditions for bargaining again any time soon. By the time the next contract negotiations roll around the job market may be very different. The debates over the future of transit will likely have been resolved one way or another. The potential leverage we could have muscled, with proper leadership, this time may not be available for 2003. It is unfortunate these opportunities were squandered on a contract that basically continues the status quo.

But even the status quo is not guaranteed. Earlier this year the ATA contracted out service between Blue Springs/Lee's Summit and Johnson County to MTSI. MTSI is a nonunion, low wage operation now owned by the British-based multinational Stage Coach.

When the ATA contracted out Northland service a few years ago the union fought it through arbitration and succeeded in bringing the work back. This time around there was not even a peep of protest from the union leadership. We can expect the ATA to try more contracting out, further threatening the job security and bargaining power of Local 1287.

Bill Onasch is a Metro bus operator and a former Vice-President of Local 1287.