AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dozens of Capital Metro bus drivers are wearing eye black Wednesday to protest tense contract negotiations. Drivers tell us this could be a precursor to a possible strike.

“This is a ‘Black Eye’ campaign to show that we’ve been getting punched in the face by MV Transportation and Capital Metro,” said Brent Payne, the local president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The ATU is the largest labor union representing bus and other transit workers.

(KXAN photo/Todd Bailey)

CapMetro says it is aware of the public display by its bus drivers. It involves either black stickers or makeup underneath the drivers’ eyes.

CapMetro says almost all of its workers from its east Austin garage are wearing the eye black and that about 90% of its drivers from its north Austin garage are wearing it.

(KXAN photo/Todd Bailey)

Currently there is no impact on passengers, but that could change if the drivers strike. No strike would happen until next week at the earliest. ATU is in contract negotiations with Dallas-based MV Transportation.

Payne says the contract negotiations with MV Transportation are scheduled to end on Friday. He has asked the company to present its best offer. He will then take that offer to the union’s drivers. If they do not like the offer, they plan to “flood” CapMetro’s Monday board meeting in protest. Payne says if they still can’t reach an agreement after that, he may ask drivers to vote on whether they want to strike.

Last August, CapMetro signed a $1.4 billion deal with MV Transportation to provide all of CapMetro’s bus operations. MV Transportation called it the largest contract in agency history.

Bus drivers in a number of different cities across the country have gone on strike to protest pay under MV Transportation, including drivers in Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Kentucky and Fairfax, Virginia.

The last labor strike in Austin was in November of 2008. Previously Cap Metro said there was a short strike in 2009 but later corrected that information.

The 2008 strike lasted three days. At one point, it forced Cap Metro to operate on just 13 bus routes.

Pressure to work too much overtime is one of drivers’ biggest complaints

Payne says there’s a big shortage of drivers right now, which is resulting in existing drivers to feel pressure to keep going for hours after their shifts technically end.

Cap Metro and MV Transportation both told KXAN that any overtime past the 8 or 10 hour shifts drivers work is voluntary, however Payne says that’s not exactly the case.

Payne showed a KXAN crew the drivers’ current contract pointing out a section that he says states that drivers aren’t allowed to stop their routes if no other driver is available to relieve them, until they’ve been at work for 12 hours.

“It is not voluntary,” Payne said. “You can’t leave that bus, because then it’d be job abandonment. Someone has to relieve you, or you have to bring the bus back to the yard.”

Payne estimates that Cap Metro is currently about 80 to 90 drivers shorter than it should be, leading more drivers to stretch to that 12 hour mark. He says some employees will even drive 14 or 15 hours in a day, because they don’t want to stop and make the riders wait for another bus after their 12 hour mark.

“It’s a safety issue,” Payne said. “I just think we’re one accident away from somebody probably being injured, because the operator’s probably out there just a little too long.”

Payne says another big part of the negotiations is making sure that every Cap Metro driver in the city makes the same amount of money and has access to benefits and 40 hour work weeks.

He explained that prior to MV’s merger last August, Cap Metro used to use two different contractors– one in north Austin and one in south Austin, and they paid their drivers different rates. He says now, even though all drivers are under MV, the pay disparity is still there, with some making less than others. The union wants to even out that gap.