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CapMetro wants French company to run bus service despite warnings from union leaders

Passengers sit on a CapMetro bus. The view is from the back of the bus.
Karina Lujan
/
KUT
France-based Keolis Transit Services is on track to score a $754 million contract to run Capital Metro's fixed-route bus service for five years.

Capital Metro is moving to hire a Paris-based company to operate bus service in the Austin area — sidelining the current contractor, MV Transportation, and raising alarms among union leaders representing more than 1,200 bus drivers and maintenance workers.

A panel of four CapMetro board members on Wednesday unanimously gave initial approval to hand the lucrative contract for fixed-route bus service to Keolis Transit Services. The $754 million contract — by far the transit agency's largest expense — would provide bus service to CapMetro for five years.

If Capital Metro's full board of directors approves the contract in a final vote scheduled for Sept. 25, Keolis would begin operating MetroBus and MetroRapid service in January.

"We do not expect there to be any impacts [from] this decision to our service," CapMetro CEO Dottie Watkins said. "The high quality men and women who operate our transit system today will continue to operate our transit system. We are committed to making this as seamless as possible and don't expect there to be any impact on our customers at all."

Union leadership is not so sure.

The Amalgamated Transit Union warned Watkins in June that Keolis had a "history of anti-union conduct." The ATU told Watkins the National Labor Relations Board had found merit in at least 48 allegations of unlawful conduct and said Keolis had settled at least 47 of them.

Keolis workers went on strike this year in Loudon County and Woodbridge, Va. In Reno, Nev., unionized Keolis workers went on strike three times in 2021. In all cases, transit service was affected.

Brent Payne, president of Austin's ATU chapter, said Keolis' executive leadership has been slow to reach out to the local union, which represents 900 CapMetro bus drivers and more than 240 mechanics. Payne met for the first time on Monday with the company's senior vice president of operations, Michael Ake, who will oversee CapMetro service.

"Normally, when a [request for solicitations] goes out, whoever bids on the contract reaches out to the ATU to get an understanding of the working agreement and get a lay of the land," he said, calling the situation "very unusual."

But CapMetro's operations committee, which voted 4-0 Wednesday to recommend the full board adopt the contract, tried to assuage the concerns of frontline employees.

"We'll be paying close attention," said CapMetro board member Chito Vela, who represents Austin City Council District 4. "If our staff is not happy, if our [bus drivers] and mechanics are not happy, I don't think our service runs well."

Capital Metro does have more control over driver and mechanic wages than it did before the pandemic. Facing a critical shortage of frontline workers in 2021, the agency worked with the ATU and MV to settle on a "wage floor" of $22 an hour for bus drivers starting in January 2022.

"Instead of saying, for example, 'I'm going to give you $5 for every hour of bus service you run and no matter what the labor market does, you only get $5,' we say, 'I will pay the wages that you have to pay to run this service,'" Watkins explained.

"Frankly, I believe that the pandemic broke that [earlier] model with the changes in the labor market and just the workforce as a whole," she said.

ATU is finalizing a labor contract with MV on issues other than wages. If that deal is adopted, both contracts — wages and working conditions — will expire Dec. 31, 2025.

Keolis plans to honor the labor contracts hashed out by ATU and MV "until such time as that [collective bargaining agreement] expires," Ake told the CapMetro operations committee.

The union has received assurances, too. But Payne said he wants everything in writing before the full board votes on the contract Sept. 25.

"Everybody's playing nice right now," he said. "It's always good until it ain't good, so it's just a wait and see."

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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