San Jose union objects to VTA work culture consultant

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VTA is postponing voting on a contract for a work culture consultant following a furious outburst from the head of the agency’s largest union.

The VTA board of directors unanimously agreed Friday to defer approving a $1.9 million two-year contract with Deloitte Consulting to aid with transforming the agency’s work culture. The board made the decision after John Courtney, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, said his union hadn’t approved the contract, which received the green light from VTA’s other three unions.

In a rare public display of disunity between the collective bargaining groups, Courtney and representatives of the other unions exchanged bitter words during the meeting. Courtney—who objected to Deloitte for allegedly not having experience working in a highly unionized workplace, and over the exclusion of firms that missed the application deadline—said VTA’s other unions only represent a “tiny, insignificant number” of employees.

About 90% of VTA’s more than 2,100 workers are represented by unions. ATU represents more than 1,500 of those members.

Courtney argued the process shouldn’t move forward without ATU’s approval, noting the funds to hire the consultant come from a bill introduced by state Sen. Dave Cortese that stipulates full participation by VTA’s unions.

“I’ll flag these events today, and this proposal, under the way it got done—I will flag that for the entire State of California Assembly,” Courtney said.

VTA officials announced plans last September to hire help to transform the public transit agency’s work culture. The need arose from several major crises the agency faced in 2020 and 2021, including challenges posed by the pandemic, a cyberattack and most significantly a mass shooting at the Guadalupe rail yard in downtown San Jose on May 26 last year that took the lives of nine workers, and later a 10th who died by suicide.

In the year since the shooting, VTA workers have complained about bullying, harassment and other toxic issues festering in different departments.

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Representatives of AFSCME Local 101, SEIU Local 521 and TAEA Local 21 said they were disappointed and disheartened with ATU for withdrawing from the process of screening consultant candidates. One representative also pushed back against Courtney’s claims.

“We really tried to contact and have meetings with ATU, and we tried to convince them to come back,” said SEIU Local 521 chief steward Haniet Bourshrockn. “I disagree that just because we are the smaller union group that we are insignificant, and we are not important—I wholeheartedly disagree with that.”

VTA board members appeared caught off guard by ATU’s objections. Sunnyvale Councilmember Glenn Hendricks said the board received a letter from ATU in March outlining concerns about the process. He claims he reached out to discuss these concerns with ATU representatives, including Courtney, and never heard back.

“To be quite honest, I’m a little bit confused about what’s going on,” Hendricks said. “I don’t have enough information about why (ATU) is not participating.”

Courtney later informed Hendricks he was unavailable for much of March because he was on PTSD leave, but also claimed to have no voicemails or emails from Hendricks. Courtney was present during the shooting last May.

VTA General Manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot lamented ATU’s “unfortunate self-removal” and praised the other unions for working collaboratively with the agency. She noted one of Courtney’s problems with the process concerns a firm that applied after deadline and was excluded from consideration, per rules established through the bidding process. She emphasized VTA wants ATU to participate in the efforts to change the public transportation agency’s work culture.

“I do want to say (ATU) are still strong partners in everything we do, and I do hope they come back,” Gonot said.

During the meeting, Courtney confirmed this is the heart of the issue. But he said the fight over the relatively straightforward act of hiring a consultant foreshadows deeper problems VTA will run into in the future as it tries to create a healthier work culture.

“We’re having a problem getting out of the gate,” Courtney said.

The consultant contract is expected to go back before the board in May.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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