Just as Kansas City prepares to celebrate this spring’s grand opening of the downtown streetcar line, a lawsuit from the local bus drivers union threatens to temporarily derail the project.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 and its president, J.P. Walker, have asked a Jackson County circuit judge to halt work until a pending dispute with the city is resolved.
The union complains that Kansas City is obliged to give its union drivers a crack at streetcar jobs and shouldn’t be allowed to hire streetcar workers until an arbitration with the union is complete. But the city’s contractor, Herzog Transit Services, has gone ahead and hired drivers and mechanics before that arbitration is accomplished.
The city is urging Circuit Judge Brent Powell to reject the demand. A court hearing could occur in March.
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“The construction of the Kansas City streetcar is the centerpiece of the city’s downtown revitalization,” Assistant City Attorney Tara Kelly wrote in a motion filed this week. “Yet on the eve of its opening, plaintiffs have filed this baseless lawsuit.”
The city says the union wants “all employees working on the Kansas City streetcar … fired, and that no other employees be retained, for months or even longer until the conclusion of a pending arbitration.”
That arbitration concerns how bus drivers should be compensated if they are negatively affected by the streetcar line.
Walker says the Streetcar Authority and Herzog knew better than to hire workers before arbitration was finished. Beyond that, he said his 650 members are guaranteed preferential hiring under labor agreements that stretch back to before the previous streetcar system shut down in the 1950s and was replaced with buses.
“The Country Club streetcar line used to run up and down Main all day long,” Walker said. “We get the first chance to work that work.”
The lawsuit stems from a disagreement over the meaning of a prior arbitration ruling from last July. The union says that ruling guaranteed its members priority rights to streetcar jobs, but the city says that’s not the case.
The bus drivers work for the Area Transportation Authority, not the city. But they are involved in this dispute because the $100 million streetcar system, running from River Market to Union Station, received $37 million in federal grants toward its construction. As a condition of those grants, the city promised to protect workers who could be affected by mass transit changes in the city.
The city contends the arbitrator did not find the streetcar project would have an adverse effect on the bus drivers. Instead, the city says, the arbitrator found the streetcar could potentially harm drivers in the future and that could be redressed by monetary damages in the future.
City and streetcar officials say neither they nor the ATA’s administrators believe the streetcar will reduce the need for bus services; in fact, it should complement the buses and lead to increased transit ridership.
“The streetcar has not and will not result in the elimination or replacement of any bus routes or bus services or cause any adverse impact to bus drivers,” the city’s legal brief says.
Walker said that the city’s plan to expand the streetcar system could well have an effect on bus service and his membership in the future and that the issues should be worked out at the negotiating table.
“We’re not trying to be hostile about it,” he said, “but we’re not going to be bowled over and let them do whatever they want to do without a fight.”
The city says that judges should grant preliminary injunctions “sparingly” and that denial won’t hurt the bus drivers but will be devastating for the city.
Issuing an injunction, the city said, “would cause tremendous harm to (the city and Streetcar Authority) and the public, including but not limited to forcing innocent streetcar employees out of their jobs, depriving city taxpayers of the streetcar they have paid for and wasting extraordinary amounts of time and money.”
It estimated that Herzog Transit Services has spent more than $500,000 on training new employees and other costs to get ready for the system’s public opening. If the injunction is granted, the city said, all that money will be wasted and Herzog will have to start from scratch.
Walker argues that the streetcar could open on time if the city would commit itself fully to negotiations.
“Anything that can’t be resolved can be resolved through an arbitrator,” he said.
Delaying the streetcar, the city argues, would also adversely affect tourism and conventions and could discourage future development along the streetcar line.
If the court were to issue the injunction, the city asks that the union be required to post a bond of at least $1 million.
The real motive, the city suggests, is that the union is trying to organize the streetcar.
“If defendants do not make this easy for the union, the union will threaten to disrupt the streetcar operation,” Kelly wrote. “The public’s interest is better served by the timely completion of an enormous public project than by wrestling jobs from those who hold them legitimately and delivering them to the union.”
In response to the lawsuit, the city and Streetcar Authority issued a joint statement Thursday saying they are continuing training and testing “in order to be ready for a public opening as planned this spring.”
They said they conducted an open, transparent and competitive process to select Herzog Transit Services, which has now hired 11 streetcar operators and five maintenance staff members with a variety of experience and knowledge through an open hiring process.
The city and streetcar authority said they are “fully cooperating with the process and look forward to a rapid resolution.”
Robbie Makinen, ATA president and CEO, issued a statement Thursday supporting the city’s position.
“It is critical that the downtown streetcar open and be available to the community as planned,” he said. “Our continued partnership with the city will increase overall use of and desire for all modes of transit in Kansas City.”