San Jose union opposes work culture consultant VTA

April 22, 2022

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

VTA’s board of directors unanimously decided on Friday to defer approval of a two-year, $1.9 million contract with Deloitte Consulting to help transform the work culture of the agency. The board made the decision after John Courtney, president and business officer of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, said his union had not approved the contract, which was given the green light by the three other VTA unions.

In a rare public display of disunity between collective bargaining groups, Courtney and representatives of other unions exchanged bitter words during the meeting. Courtney – who took issue with Deloitte for allegedly not having work experience in a highly unionized workplace and for excluding companies that missed the application deadline – said other unions in VTA represent only a “tiny and insignificant number” of employees.

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

Courtney argued that the process should not move forward without ATU approval, noting that the funds to hire the consultant come from a bill introduced by State Senator Dave Cortese which stipulates the full participation of VTA unions.

“I will report these events today, and this proposal, as carried out, I will report to the entire California State Assembly,” Courtney said.

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

In the year following the shooting, VTA workers complained of bullying, harassment and other toxic issues rotting in different departments.

Representatives of AFSCME Local 101, SEIU Local 521 and TAEA Local 21 said they were disappointed and discouraged by the ATU for withdrawing from the selection process consultant candidates. A rep also pushed back against Courtney’s claims.

“We really tried to contact and have meetings with the ATU, and we tried to convince them to come back,” said Haniet Bourshrockn, chief steward of SEIU Local 521. “I don’t agree with that, just because we’re the smallest union group that we’re insignificant and we’re not important, I don’t agree with that at all.”

VTA board members seemed taken aback by the ATU’s objections. Sunnyvale board member Glenn Hendricks said the board received a letter from the ATU in March raising concerns about the process. He says he reached out to discuss these concerns with ATU representatives, including Courtney, and never heard back.

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

Courtney then informed Hendricks that he was unavailable for much of March because he was on PTSD leave, but also claimed to have no voicemail or email from Hendricks. Courtney was present during the filming last May.

VTA Managing Director and CEO Carolyn Gonot lamented the ATU’s “unfortunate self-relocation” and praised other unions for working with the agency. She noted that one of Courtney’s issues with the process involves a company that applied after the deadline and was excluded from consideration, per the rules set out in the bidding process. She pointed out that VTA wants ATU to be part of efforts to change the working culture of the public transport agency.

“I want to say that (ATU) is always a strong partner in everything we do, and I hope he comes back,” Gonot said.

During the meeting, Courtney confirmed that this was the crux of the matter. But he said the struggle over the relatively simple act of hiring a consultant foreshadows deeper issues that VTA will face in the future as it tries to create a healthier work culture.

“We’re having a hard time getting out the door,” Courtney said.

The consultancy contract is expected to come back to the board of directors in May.

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

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Maria D. Ervin