Texas State tram drivers are expected to discuss the possibility of receiving higher wages, benefits and the authorization of a potential strike in a mediated meeting with First Transit officials in May.
Michael Fleury, university bus driver, said tram employees voted to form a union last year. He said bus drivers have negotiated with First Transit over the past year. They encouraged the company to offer an hourly wage increase from the current amount of $10, health insurance benefits, sick days, safer buses and comfort for student passengers.
Fifty-five out of the 81 university tram drivers signed petitions in the bus loop from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 13.
Jay Wyatt, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Austin, said 44 employees voted in favor of a strike and 11 were against it. He said 51 bus drivers cast a ballot to refuse current contracts with First Transit while four employees chose to accept the contracts.
“We’re going to continue to negotiate and sort the issues out and if not, there could be a strike,” Wyatt said. “A strike is always a last resort and it’s not something we want to do.”
John Root, director of Auxiliary Services, said First Transit officials, university tram driver representatives and a neutral mediator party will meet to negotiate on May 9. He said the meeting could be held over multiple days if needed for an agreement.
Fleury said the bus driver union is looking to obtain a three-year First Transit contract with an hourly wage increase of about 50 cents over the first year. He said the union would like to see a steady percentage pay raise for approximately five years, among other proposals in negotiations.
“Some things we have been able to accomplish with negotiations,” Fleury said. “Bottom line is they (First Transit) don’t want to let go of a penny if they don’t have to and I don’t think they feel we’re worth it. We’re the heart and soul of this company and without us what do they have?”
StarTran now provides about two-thirds of the bus services under Capital Metro. Fleury said the top earning StarTran employees receive an hourly salary of about $21.53 and medical care benefits.
Capital Metro is the primary transportation company for the city of Austin. Capital Metro organized the nonprofit corporation, StarTran, in 1991.
Elementary, middle and high school bus drivers in San Marcos receive an hourly pay of approximately $12 with bonuses and health insurance benefits. The Texas State tram employees receive $10 an hour and no medical care benefits.
Root said the university bus system is funded 100 percent by student fees, whereas there are several other sources of funding behind the Austin Capital Metro operations. He said the Austin bus system has access to funds from several sources. These funds come from federal money, 1 percent of all sales taxes paid by consumers in the city and a small portion of bus fares.
“That’s an incredible amount of money they are dealing with,” Root said. “First Transit does some of the Austin routes, but they are dealing with another entity and have a lot more financial resources at their disposal.”
Bill Nance, vice president for finance and support services, said students should expect to see a bus fee increase in the fall of 2014 from $78 to $95. This increase will help attain new trams and operational support for the winning bidder of the contract.
Root said the university pays First Transit about $4 million a year based on the student bus fees. He said the money goes towards the operational costs of the drivers, new buses and maintenance on the trams. First Transit purchased 24 new buses in 2007.
Yvette Salazar, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said the university bus drivers have a high turnover rate, which helps to create safety issues. She said the existing funds supporting First Transit can be better allocated among the tram employees.
“I travel across the country working with transit agencies and these (university bus drivers) are probably the lowest-paid people I’ve come across,” Salazar said.
Diana Rawlins, bus driver, said tram employees have about five minutes to get from shift to shift throughout the day without lunch break periods.
Rawlins said she would like to attain health insurance benefits because it is difficult for her to afford medical plans with her paycheck.
Root said he is “very hopeful” and “feels strongly” there will be resolution between university bus drivers and First Transit officials at the May 9 mediated meeting.