Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Amalgamated Transit Union workers at MARTA are protesting stalled contract negotiations with the transit agency and MARTA’s move to privatize certain operations such as paratransit. Today, the local union president says MARTA is following a faulty road map on its way to ourtsourcing jobs and its well-paid leaders are betraying thousands of middle-class workers who deserve better. In turn, MARTA’s board of directors lay out their plans to achieve financial solvency while insisting that they have no intention of leaving their workers behind.
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MARTA betraying workers
By Curtis Howard
Early next month, Atlanta may wake up to shocking news: the dismantling and selling off of MARTA, our public transit system, to private companies.
MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe, CEO Keith Parker and the MARTA Board of Directors are promoting this scheme as “progress,” using fancy titles like “public-private partnerships.” They say their goal is to shore up finances.
How would they do that? First, they want to tear up MARTA Mobility, the paratransit service that seniors and people with disabilities rely on. According to one internal MARTA memo, the plan includes shoving riders into taxis to “off-load a portion of trips” to make their numbers look better. It means endangering riders aboard unsafe vehicles operated by overworked and underpaid part-time employees driving over 30 hours per week.
But on top of abandoning riders and exploiting workers, they want to sell Mobility altogether, letting a private company manage the service. Another internal MARTA memo quotes one out-of-state bidder, saying, “Cost savings is not one of the objectives of this proposal.” Huh? That sounds more like deception than progress.
Clearly, the goal is not to improve transit service or reduce costs. It is to enrich a few at the expense and impoverishment of many.
Mr. Parker earns $325,000 per year plus a $25,000 bonus for every year he stays on the job. That’s far more than transit chiefs earn in larger cities like Chicago or Dallas. It’s also exponentially more than paratransit workers and riders make. Yet in their memo, MARTA officials acknowledge that “low wages” and “inflexible work schedules” lead to high turnover. That truth was echoed by Mr. Parker in his previous life, when he commissioned a report sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration that said privatizing paratransit doesn’t work, partly because low wages paid by privateers lead to high turnover.
Confused? Apparently so are Mr. Parker and Mr. Ashe. They justify their hoodwinking with a 2012 report from accounting firm KPMG, which recommended outsourcing. That report, however, has been widely discredited including by Dr. Elliot Sclar, a specialist in the economics of public services, who asserts KPMG’s conclusions are “based on false comparisons, illegitimate cost measures, and incomplete data.”
Tellingly, Mr. Parker and Mr. Ashe refuse to show the public the raw numbers KPMG used to reach its conclusions. Those details are locked in a vault in Mr. Parker’s office. They claim that the numbers contain “proprietary information.” News flash to Parker and Ashe: The people of Georgia, not you, own MARTA.
Ironically, the website of Mr. Ashe’s law firm brags about handling cases for people seeking open records under Georgia’s laws. His firm also touts that it once “settled a case against accounting titan KPMG and investors seeking $500 million caused by fraudulent tax shelters.”
There also are many cautionary tales of paratransit privatization in cities such as Dallas and Palm Beach, Fla. Private contractors make lofty promises that can’t possibly be honored by locking cities into multi-year paratransit contracts and then failing miserably, providing awful service on unsafe vehicles that are not fit for anyone.
Keith Parker was against outsourcing paratransit before he was for it. Mr. Ashe was against government secrecy before he was for it. At least now, both men’s positions are clear. They both support breaking up our public transit service, eliminating as many as 1,000 jobs, and telling citizens one thing while they share internal memos saying the opposite.
Georgia has the highest unemployment rate in the country. The policies of bureaucrats like Ashe and Parker will only make it worse. MARTA once lifted a generation of workers, especially African-Americans, into the middle class. Now, the guys in charge are pushing the middle class toward extinction.
If they succeed, we may soon be living in the old Atlanta, where working and disadvantaged Georgians are left behind while the privileged and wealthy race ahead. I say “might” because MARTA workers, our riders and our community allies will do everything in our power to stop this campaign to rob Atlantans. We hope Mayor Kasim Reed, with his three MARTA board appointees, and the leaders of Fulton and DeKalb counties, who appoint the rest, will stand with us, their citizens, and do the right thing.
Curtis Howard is president of Local 732 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 2,859 of MARTA’s 4,553 full-time employees.
Respectfully seeking workable solutions
From the MARTA board of directors
The MARTA Board of Directors and the agency’s leadership team have an abiding respect and admiration for the hardworking employees who have faithfully served the travelling public over the past four decades. To continue that legacy of public service, the sobering reality is that MARTA must fundamentally change the way it conducts business.
The one-cent sales tax collected in the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, which funds most of MARTA’s operations, is a volatile source of revenue that’s entirely beyond our control. Change is rarely easy, but it’s absolutely critical to our long-term success – even survival.
Over the last several years, MARTA has been taking prudent and aggressive steps to get its financial house in order. That effort includes identifying new sources of revenue, implementing operational efficiencies, using technology more effectively and cutting costs wherever we can. For example:
• We have balanced MARTA’s budget two years in a row – with $9 million and $14 million surpluses, respectively – which hadn’t happened in the previous seven years.
• We recently modified our electricity consumption, a move estimated to save the agency nearly $3 million a year.
• We established a floating-rate note program, allowing MARTA to trade on its own creditworthiness. As a result, we expect to reduce our borrowing costs and save more than $500,000 over the next three years.
• By converting to paperless paychecks for employees, we have saved about $100,000 a year.
We’re making solid progress transforming MARTA for the future and still have much to do. That’s why we are obliged to state the facts regarding assertions by the leadership of Local 732, Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents many MARTA employees. Specifically, we must address statements about our ongoing efforts to improve Mobility (paratransit) service that provides curb-to-curb transportation for customers with disabilities and eligible seniors.
MARTA is exploring how best to provide better service to all of our customers – including those who use Mobility – in part, by reducing unacceptable levels of absenteeism by a few employees. A relatively small handful of frequent no-shows cost MARTA an estimated $10 million a year; about 75 percent of that cost is attributable to ATU-represented employees.
Repeatedly, we have asked ATU’s leaders for serious suggestions how to cut costs and improve performance. Unfortunately, they have seemed more interested in fighting than finding workable solutions.
At least two years before the ATU’s current labor contract expired, management was considering a more cost-effective business model for Mobility. One option includes “sourcing” the service to a third-party contractor to make much-needed improvements for our most vulnerable customers while also lowering personnel costs. In any scenario, MARTA would retain full control and ownership of all its Mobility vehicles and other assets.
If MARTA decides to move forward with sourcing Mobility, we will offer the ATU a fair opportunity to compete. The board recently postponed an important vote to begin soliciting proposals from private companies to give the union enough time to prepare its own proposal.
More important, we anticipate that Mobility employees with good attendance and who do a good job will be retained, regardless of whether they are being paid by MARTA or by a private company. No decisions have been made about how to proceed.
Any cost savings that might be realized by sourcing Mobility or other departments will be re-invested in service enhancements for MARTA’s customers and in the economic well-being of our employees, who have always been our main priority. Historically, MARTA has endeavored to be a wise steward of public funds and a proud champion for the rights of “the least of these,” as well as the middle class. That is still our mission.
When labor talks began, management and ATU’s leadership agreed to a set of ground rules, including a stipulation that we would not negotiate in the media. Management has complied with those rules, and we intend to continue doing so. Our goals, however, are straightforward: Offering employees a meaningful wage and benefit package while curbing the inexcusable absenteeism by a small number of workers that is costing us millions of dollars.
Even as we proudly honor MARTA’s past, we must do what is necessary to keep making our transit system better now and in the years ahead. The customers who pay to ride, the state lawmakers charged with MARTA’s oversight, and the taxpayers who support us have all made it clear that they will accept nothing less. We won’t, either.