15 Myths About The Bus Strike (and More)
UPDATE #4: Two new myths emerge plus photos from the picket line.
UPDATE 4: The union has offered up two new myths. We also have photos from the picket line.
UPDATE 3: Day 2 of the strike is underway. We’re back with more observations.
UPDATE 2: We’ve updated the story to reflect everything that has happened in the first day of the work stoppage.
UPDATE: The story has been updated at the end to reflect the news that the “strike” is official. The union is calling it a work stoppage and will return to work on July 4th after a 72 hour shutdown.
Milwaukee County Transit System bus drivers and mechanics have authorized a strike that would begin at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning. The strike would idle the system’s 416 buses for at least a day, possibly much longer. The last such strike occurred in 1978 and lasted 39 days. Milwaukee Transport Services (which manages the system) and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 will meet again today in a mediated session to try to reach a deal.
If the two sides don’t reach a deal, County Supervisor Michael Mayo, Sr. has already called it a catastrophe that will leave thousands stranded without a way to work, to hospitals or many other destinations. On the plus side, the crowd at your favorite band at Summerfest should be lighter as the system provides 20,000 rides to-and-from the festival grounds every day.
At issue between in the dispute, at least according to statements from the bus drivers’ union, is the desire of management (MTS) to hire part-time drivers to reduce overtime costs and the length of time operators are allowed for bathroom breaks. But the negotiations are complicated by several factors: Most notably, during contract negotiations, union president James Macon faced a contentious re-election campaign. Macon has yet to return my request for comment on the negotiations. Also at issue is a key rule change involving retirement eligibility that could save the county a significant amount of money.
Not to be overlooked in any union labor negotiation in Wisconsin is the reality that this is now a Right to Work state. The law, pushed through by the state legislature and Governor Scott Walker (who said it was a distraction and then gladly signed it at Badger Meter), allows union members to opt-out of the union without penalty. So the union is under more pressure to get a good deal in order to keep members paying their dues.
As important as the contract dispute is, it has been under-covered by the media and myths and half-truths abound. Here are 13 of the most important:
Milwaukee County is reducing bathroom breaks for drivers
Macon has staked his claim on the issue of bathroom breaks, arguing the union isn’t fighting about wages, but instead break times. But according to MCTS Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Brendan Conway, there are no changes proposed to the contract language on such breaks.
As it stands, routes have layovers built in commonly at the end of the route. According to MCTS data, the shortest time allocated is four minutes, which happens on 23 percent of trips. The longest time is 20 minutes, on 2 percent of trips. The second most common occurrence is six minutes, which is allocated to 22 percent of trips. Drivers receive that break multiple times per shift as they do laps on their route.
Conway also noted that drivers are able to call in and pull over to take a break without penalty, should nature call at an inconvenient time. This is something I’ve personally experienced as a rider a number of times as drivers make a quick dash to McDonald’s.
MCTS drivers can retire outrageously early
That would depend on your definition of outrageous. The fact is, MCTS drivers and mechanics are eligible to retire at 47 under a “27 and out” rule. In short, if they began work at age 20, service drivers and mechanics can retire with a full pension and healthcare at 47. Nice work if you can get it. MTS is proposing to replace this with two new rules. The first would allow drivers to retire at 62 with a minimum of five years of service, something that would benefit late hires. The more significant would come from what is dubbed the “rule of 85.” That rule would allow drivers to retire with full benefits when their age plus years of service equals 85. This would push the minimum retirement age back to about 52 or 53 years old for a driver who starts at age 20.
As the rule currently stands, it’s entirely possible that drivers could be hired at 20, retire at 47, draw their pension, have their replacement also retire at 47 (while the original retiree is 74) and begin to draw their pension, and have a third driver hired for the same job. That scenario has the company paying two pensions, with someone earning on a third, while only getting one shift covered. And all three also are receiving health care coverage. Talk about legacy costs.
There are 150,000 daily riders of MCTS
Sometimes one letter makes all the difference. The Milwaukee County Transit System provides approximately 150,000 RIDES every weekday. Assuming every rider took one bus to work and back, that’s only 75,000 RIDERS. And that number is further reduced because of people that need to transfer and people that take multiple trips during the day. Still, it’s safe to say that whatever the actual number of riders is, it’s more than the population of all but a handful of cities in Wisconsin. Shutting down the transit system in Milwaukee County would have a big impact, roughly equal to every resident of my hometown of Janesville (population 63,575, 10th largest city in the state) not being able to leave their house for all but the shortest trips tomorrow.
The Transit System would benefit from being privatized
Er, actually, it already is privatized. Mostly. Ever since Milwaukee County took over the previously for-profit system in 1975, the system has been operated by a private, not-for-profit firm known as Milwaukee Transport Services. MTS is in effect what was leftover from the formerly for-profit Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Company. Milwaukee County owns the physical assets and contracts with Milwaukee Transport Services to operate them. This is a fairly unique arrangement, as most systems in the United States that are privatized have a for-profit operator (for example, New Orleans uses Veolia). Milwaukee’s was one of the last systems to transition from a failing for-profit company to a publicly-owned transit system, which is perhaps why the system is structured as it is.
Where does that leave us? No one seems to agree. The system is at the very least privately-managed and publicly-owned. Everyone does seem to agree that somewhere along the way lawyers representing the various disputing entities made money.
Milwaukee bus drivers are government workers
Nope. Despite the fact that the buses say “Milwaukee County Transit System” on them, bus drivers are actually employed by the private, not-for-profit operator Milwaukee Transport Services. They’re still unionized, but unlike many other systems in the country, they’re not government employees.
Bus drivers benefit from the Milwaukee County pension scandal
Double nope. Because they’re not employees of Milwaukee County they don’t have county pensions. Because they are employees of MTS, drivers and mechanics have pensions from and managed through MTS.
Bus drivers make a salary of $63,000 a year
If this were the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact, this rating would get a “Mostly True” or maybe “Half True” or maybe… Yes, the average MCTS bus driver does take home $63,000 annually, but only after overtime. In order to reach that salary, the driver must work overtime equivalent to roughly a sixth workday in the week. Their base pay is an average hourly rate of $23.78, which puts drivers just under $50,000 annually. Reducing the use of overtime pay through the hiring of part-time drivers (as the contract offer proposes to do) would reduce the average compensation for drivers, but also result in them working closer to a traditional 40-hour week.
A traditional 40-hour week is, however, something that is rather difficult for a transit system to achieve. Some routes have scheduled runs that last up to nine-hours, which makes it nearly possible to pencil out a 40-hour work week.
Drivers are being asked to pay more for their pension
The current contract proposal from MTS will actually reduce the pension contribution drivers must make by 1.3 percent. This is effectively a wage increase that will result in more take-home pay for drivers. Under the current contract, which expired April 1st, drivers pay 7.8 percent of their pension costs via an automatic withdrawal from their paychecks. The new deal would lower that contribution to 6.5 percent.
Only active members may vote on union contracts
Wrong. One important footnote about the deal approval and strike vote is that retired members of the union are eligible to vote. Those retirees are of course likely to vote for more drastic action to preserve a premium healthcare plan, given that their pension checks will continue to be issued while the union strikes.
This contract is about Chris Abele trying to squeeze the union
The story of the millionaire County Executive trying to crush the common man sure would make for good headlines. But in fact, the contract negotiations are between Milwaukee Transport Services and the bus drivers’ union. Yes, Milwaukee County Department of Transportation Director of Administration James Martin has been in the room a few times during negotiations according to Conway, but that’s the extent of the county’s direct involvement. Conway, speaking from his past role as communications director for the county executive, remembers former MTS head Lloyd Grant bringing a final deal to Abele’s office to brief the County Executive, but Abele had nothing to do with negotiating the deal. This is the non-profit transit company trying to negotiate with the transit workers to provide the most service possible.
Drivers haven’t received a wage increase in years
Built into the current deal, and into the proposed future deal, are cost-of-living adjustments. Every month the pay rate for drivers is adjusted according to a federal standard allowing for up to a 2 percent cost-of-living annual adjustment. This means drivers get a few pennies more per hour every few months. Not a huge increase certainly, but something many in the private sector would envy.
The new contract would reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment for pensioners that retire after December 31st, 2015 from 2 percent to 1 percent. Existing retirees would not be affected.
No other bus system uses part-time workers
Actually, a number of other systems utilize part-time drivers, including Minneapolis and Cleveland which were ironically just pitched last week as cities with transit systems worth emulating. But part-time employees wouldn’t be part of the local union, so that is reason enough for union leaders to hate this part of the deal.
Employees would go without pay during the strike
That’s probably mostly true. The local union can receive strike pay from the national Amalgamated Transit Union, but it’s believed by multiple sources outside of the union that the national union has yet to authorize the strike support. So it’s possible that a strike would cause significant financial hardship on the drivers. But as noted, I haven’t heard from Macon on this and other questions. Should he get in touch we will update the story.
- Length of Layovers in Minutes by Trip – June 2015
- Letter to employees re Contract Proposal – June 27th, 2015
- June 26 MCTS Proposal to ATU to be voted upon – June 29th, 2015
The mediated contract negotiations broke off around 5 p.m. with no deal, effectively meaning a strike is coming. Service continues through the end of the operating day, with a “work stoppage,” as the union is calling it, beginning at 3 a.m. and lasting 72 hours.
According to a release put out by MCTS, the company offered a new contract during today’s negotiations that included a matching $1,000 Flexible Spending Account for employees to help offset modest increases in healthcare costs (an increase of $500), a cap on the number of part-time drivers MCTS will hire and some flexibility for how mechanics use their personal time. According to MCTS, ATU 998 came to the table asking for an $8 million increase.
The union held a press conference at their headquarters at 6 p.m. During that press conference president James Macon stated that the union did not want to go on strike, but would go on what they are calling a 72-hour “work stoppage.” Macon, contrary to what Conway had told me earlier today, said that James Martin, a county employee, is running the negotiations (we report above that he was present at the negotiations). Macon also noted that the county is refusing to go to arbitration, but that the union has offered.
During the press conference the union expressed their displeasure with the intent to hire part-time drivers that will not be offered a pension or healthcare, with Macon stating that it would bankrupt the pension (I can’t make sense of this, and await a chance to follow-up with ATU about it). Macon also stated that MCTS is putting out false information, without stating specific items. The press conference ultimately broke up with Macon repeatedly insisting that the media is not putting out information from ATU, with members of the media stating that the information is from March and out-of-date. We will gladly publish that or any other information from ATU 998 should it arrive.
You can watch the press conference on the TMJ4 website.
It is important to note that I have yet to speak directly with Macon as of 7:30 p.m. on June 30th.
A rally is scheduled in support of transit workers at 8 p.m. tomorrow at N. Fond du Lac Ave. and W. Vine St. near the MCTS main garage.
Update #2 (July 1st, 2015 – 4:00 p.m.)
The story continues to twist and turn. A few key points have emerged and countless press releases have been issued. Most significantly, despite Milwaukee Transport Services not being a traditional part of the county, it does appear the county is involved in the negotiations. Tensions have been high between County Executive Chris Abele and union leader James Macon for quite some time, with Macon calling out Abele in person at a recent WisPolitics event (audio from The Daily Reporter/Matthew Taub).
The County Board also finds itself ensnared in the strike now, with Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice finding that Supervisor John Weishan encouraged the union to strike or stage a “flu day.” In a memo about his meeting with Weishan, union legislative director Thomas Stawicki admits that the new Right to Work legislation could have a serious effect on the union’s ability to maintain a strike.
In that memo Stawecki also contended the county is saving $250,000 to $300,000 a day while the system is shutdown. My back of the envelope math suggests that number is likely close to correct, even given the lost farebox revenue, non-unionized employees still working and monthly and weekly fare reimbursements (If you’re playing along at home, it’s a $164 million annual budget with 30 percent of that coming from the farebox and some small amount for all the non-unionized staff).
What’s nearly impossible to calculate is the lost economic productivity of the region while the strike goes on. Thankfully the internet is coming to the rescue in a big way: Reddit has a section for people looking for rides and a number of neighborhood-based Facebook groups have people offering rides. I also received an email from Uber today advising me on estimated costs to get to Summerfest.
Not to be outdone by the County Board’s involvement, alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Donovan showed up on the picket lines this morning. Donovan also issued a press release calling for Mayor Tom Barrett to intervene. But neither Donovan, Barrett more any city officials have any direct control over the transit system. Donovan’s strategy for solving the impasse? “Lock both sides in a room until we get a deal done?”
I’m still awaiting a callback from the union to tell more of their side of the story. Meanwhile, I highly recommend you watch the uncut ATU press conference footage from yesterday evening at bottom of the TMJ4 article.
Update #3 (July 2nd, 2015 – 12:00 p.m.)
After you read my update, make sure to read my colleague Bruce Murphy’s column “Who’s to Blame for Bus Strike?” It offers an informative take on the political fight that has surrounded the transit system for the past five years.
The “work stoppage” has entered day two and not much has changed. People still can’t get to work by bus. Drivers and mechanics are still picketing. No end is in sight.
County Executive Chris Abele finds himself increasingly at the center of the storm for a variety of reasons. One, it’s always easier to motivate people to against a clear enemy. Two, it’s far easier when that common enemy is far wealthier than the protesters. Three, the county’s proposed contribution to the arena (the debt) is by far the most blatant giveaway of public funds in the proposed deal and makes for an easy counterpoint for the union in this debate. Four, he does have a new security deal that includes the use of an SUV. And finally, the union would have no success framing MCTS managing director Dan Boehm as the bad guy. He’s unknown by the general public, frequently seen in the crowd at public events and has a down-to-earth personality, none of the qualities you want in Goliath if you’re trying to marshal an army of David’s. Whether he is or not, it’s easy to frame Abele as the villain.
Also of interest, the union still doesn’t seem to have a clear public outreach strategy. They haven’t hired a public relations firm. They don’t have a clear single issue they’re trumpeting. They don’t seem to have lockstep support from other unions (yes, there has been some support from others, but nothing that appears to be significant). Their website still lists the ousted leadership from years ago. Their social media presence is non-existent. As one other reporter in town put it to me “it’s striking 101.” It’s pretty clear they’re failing the class.
Along with the union’s odd public relations behavior, their time-limited work stoppage is also a bit unusual when it comes to negotiating. By announcing they would only stop work for three days, the union gave away some leverage. Why would MCTS compromise if the union is coming back to work under the old deal on Saturday? I’m far from a labor law expert, but I can’t make sense of defining the length of your strike before you start it.
Retired driver Angela Porter has posted a first-hand account of her time as a driver on her Facebook wall. In the now widely-circulated post, she claims to have had her nose broken and head smashed into a farebox in separate incidents. She references an incident where she was sexually assaulted at gun point at the end of a route. In reference to the bathroom time dispute, she notes that she had to wear adult diapers while working shortly before she retired. We’re unable to verify her account.
Myths also still abound the debate around the issue. MCTS communications head Brendan Conway even jumped in on the 150,000 riders myth (truth: it’s probably at least half that) during an interview with WUWM. People still continue to discuss that MCTS wants to increase the cost of the pension (truth: they would cut the cost to employees). They want to shorten layovers/bathroom breaks (truth: the short breaks are already in place and have been for years, no change is proposed in the contract).
Reader insight: As astute reader CK Ellison pointed out, the first day of the strike ironically coincided with the 40th anniversary of the county’s ownership of the system. I think that makes the strike a mid-life crisis.
Update #4 (July 2nd, 2015 – 3:00 p.m.)
The union is firing back at the claim that transit employees make an average of $62,000 annually (including overtime). Their fact sheet states that the County Executive Chris Abele is overstating their pay by 20 percent.
New Myth – ““Yeah, drivers (are) going to make $63,000 if (they’re) working 18 hours a day, seven, 10 days a week”
This quote was given to WISN by union President James Macon. Ignoring overtime for a minute, a bus driver working 18 hours a day, seven days a week would earn $155,544.48 annually. A driver that works Macon’s mythical 10-day weeks would earn $222,580.80. Factor in overtime and that driver would be sleepless, but very wealthy.
To earn $63,000 a driver needs to work an average of 47 hours a week. The 40-hour regular base pay at $23.87 hour nets them $49,462.40. With overtime being paid at time and a half ($35.67), they would need to work an additional 380 hours or seven extra hours a week. It’s easy to imagine a driver that works a nine-hour long run (45 hours a week) making it to $63,000 when overtime is factored in.
Conway notes in a follow-up phone call that like many union contracts, overtime rules at MCTS are extremely complex. The $62,300 figure is calculated by taking the base salary for every employee and the budgeted overtime and dividing it evenly among the employees. Conway was quick to point out that seniority and other issues cause that ideal dispersal not to happen and some employees earn more than others. One thing is clear, MCTS pays the average employee $62,300.
New Myth – Part-Time Employees Would Bankrupt the Pension
The union has put forth at multiple points that they believe the part-time employees would bankrupt the pension. I can’t make sense of this claim. Part-time employees would neither pay into nor draw from the pension. They have zero impact.
You could make the complicated claim that by replacing full-time drivers with part-time employees, there is a reduction in the number of people paying in. If the pension worked like Social Security, that would be an issue as the current and future workers pay for the current retirees. With a well-managed pension fund the costs are paid up-front by the future beneficiaries. On the day of retirement that employee’s future benefits shouldn’t require any future deposits. Of course, because the funds are often invested this could cause short-term issues if the stock market crashes.
As I’ve reported earlier in this article, the contract offer would reduce the employee contribution to the pension. This would in effect give the transit employees a raise. The ATU Fact Sheet states that they want “no cuts to the pension.” It notes “the pension is adequately funded. There is no need for adjustments.” Strangely ATU does not seem to want this pay increase.
As for those concerned about the part-timers not receiving benefits, fear not. According to the union many, if not all, of the part-timers would be retirees (who as we reported could be as young as 47). They would still be receiving their pension, as well as their retiree healthcare and the part-time pay. It’s quite likely they would be the highest paid employees in the system when you factor in their pension and their part-time pay (commonly referred to as “double dipping”). I suspect a number of retirees will ultimately welcome the chance for part-time work.
Some other news and notes.
- The ATU Fact Sheet is available as a PDF.
- A rally is planned for 5:00 p.m. tonight at the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
- ATU 998 does have a Facebook page
- MCTS has created a Frequently Asked Questions page on their website. It spends a lot of time on the bathroom issue.
Urban Milwaukee contributor Laura Thompson went to MCTS headquarters on N. 17th St. and W. Fond du Lac Ave. to see how the picket line was looking. A small group was there drawing a number of honks in support, including many from truck drivers. Picket lines are also in place at the two other MCTS garages, Fiebrantz (1900 W. Fiebrantz Ave.) and Kinnickinnic (1718 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.).
- Alderman Bauman and Alderman Stamper issue joint statement regarding bus driver work stoppage
- Weishan Says Abele Rides in Comfort While Average Citizens Wait for Bus
- ATU Strike Puts Public Safety and Low Income Workers at Risk – Deanna Alexander
- Alderman Donovan Calls on Mayor to Mediate Transit Dispute
- County Executive Calls on Union to Restore Transit Service as soon as Possible
- Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, Supervisor Mayo, Call for Restoration of Bus Service