MARTA vs. labor: like running into a horse with an SUV

MARTA’s boss man lives in grand mansion with columns out front.

How do I know that? I saw it in a newspaper advertisement a couple weeks ago.

The ad, paid for by angry union members, compares MARTA CEO Keith Parker’s stately edifice with a couple of dumps occupied by the rank and file. The photos are accompanied by verbiage aimed at shaming Parker, who makes $345,000, which is ahead of several transit chiefs in cities with larger systems, and accuses him of financially sticking it to workers already surviving on food stamps.

The ads, accompanied by some noisy protests the past month, are a very public thumb in the eye of management by frustrated union members who have been without a raise for years and have negotiated fruitlessly on a new contract since June 2013.

For years, MARTA has maintained a worse public image than Congress and now, some 2,900 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union have run headlong into a management standing firm in the belief that things simply must change. In 2012, a KPMG report called MARTA’s economic model “unsustainable,” saying the agency needed to cut $25 million a year so the public could continue to sit in rail cars and watch strange people talk to themselves.

“What is different this time is the stakes are higher for MARTA,” said Lyle Harris, the agency’s communications guy, who ticked off recent challenges — budget cuts, layoffs, route cuts, dwindling ridership. “We recognize we have to make a fundamental change in how MARTA operates.”

Union members say KPMG’s auditors were merely hired Hessians brought in to deliver ammo to management for the pending negotiations.

“We make less money today than in 2008,” said Curtis Howard, a MARTA electrician who heads the transit union local. “The workers sacrificed in recent years but now that times are getting good, they say, ‘We want to outsource your jobs.’ “

For months, it seemed the negotiation’s sticking points were the same things you hear these days — rising health care costs, onerous pensions, frozen pay stubs. But the episode that turned this negotiative dance ugly is MARTA’s plan to look at outsourcing the paratransit system, the network of little buses that pick up the disabled and elderly from their homes.

MARTA spends some $26 million a year on the service and KPMG said each trip costs $51. The bean counters figured that privatizing the service, which is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, could save from $15 million to $43 million over five years.

'Some days, 30 percent are absent'

A memo drawn up by MARTA in June looked at “Strategies to Improve Service.” The top priority? “Employee availability.”

Basically, many of the 300 paratransit drivers just don’t show up to work.

The memo says that 31 employees were out on leave for more than 30 days and sick time is being abused.

“Some days, 30 percent are absent,” Joe Erves, MARTA’s senior director of operations, said in an interview this week.

The memo makes five recommendations to remedy this. Number 1? “Enforce attendance policy,” adding “There are no real consequences for being absent.”

I’ve never been to Leadership School but that seems like Management 101.

But the same memo said the unit’s low wages, inflexible work schedule and a “challenging culture/work environment” have turned the department into a revolving door.

'It's a solid job'

I wanted to talk to one of those workers and found Natoya Walker, a 38-year-old single mother of five who has driven the Mobility buses for six years, four of those full-time.

“It’s a solid job,” she said. “I’m almost 40, I don’t want to start over”

Walker lives in a slightly beat-up suburban subdivision southwest of the airport. She started driving for $11.23 an hour and now makes $13.83 with annual step-increases. To make ends meet, she receives food stamps and rent assistance. “If I didn’t, I couldn’t make it.”

One of the union ads noted that “MARTA once lifted a generation of workers, especially African-Americans, into the middle class. But no more.”

Union leaders point out that another study, which Parker was a part of, said the average pay for private paratransit companies was $2.50 less than those operated by public agencies and benefits were minimal.

There’s lots of talk about many MARTA workers being duckers and shirkers, but Walker seems like the kind of employee any company would like to have. She’s gregarious, has some college, likes her clients and is dedicated to her job.

The SUV and the horse

The job is grueling, a split shift where she works 6:15 to 10:15 a.m and again from 1 to 5 p.m. Usually, she hangs around the bus barn or does errands during the dead time between shifts because it’s too far to drive home and then back in the allotted time.

Each morning, she gets her kids up at 4:30 to drive them to a babysitter and then off to work. Early this month, she had a brush with the bizarre when in the predawn hours a horse galloped out of the dark, smashed into the grill of her SUV and then demolished the side of the vehicle. She got out, paused for a bit, determined the animal was as dead as Roy Rogers’ Trigger and then drove on to work with an array of warning lights flashing on her dashboard.

She was not going to miss work.

She admits others in her unit don’t care. “People should come to work if they want their job,” she said.

She’s right. It’s not rocket science. Run off the loafers and find a way to let dedicated employees earn a living wage.