Who’s To Blame for Bus Strike?
The union? Chris Abele? John Weishan? Scott Walker? A frank assessment.
To begin to understand the bus strike or “work stoppage,” you probably have to begin with the fact that Milwaukee County government is like a bad marriage where both sides (county board and county executive) can’t see eye-to-eye on anything.
Board members had complained for years that Milwaukee Transport Services (MTS), the non-profit group that ran the county bus system, was dragging its feet in instituting changes (like paper-less transfers) and others were pushing for real-time data on when buses would arrive. MTS was also under fire for its mismanagement of the county paratransit contract, which cost county taxpayers $8 million.
Given that the same group, MTS, had been running the system since 1975, why not bid it out and see what kind of deal the county can get, County Executive Chris Abele figured. “MTS had been so tortoise-like on going to paper-less transfers, I’m not surprised the county exec tried to shake things up,” County Supervisor Mark Borkowski told me when I wrote about this back in 2013.
Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic had not one word to say about Abele’s decision. Nor did any board member, save for Sup. John Weishan, who is generally willing to bash the county exec on any issue. But everything the board did later suggests they opposed Abele’s decision to shake things up, whatever their historic dissatisfaction with MTS.
The MTS, which also bid for the contract, sued the county to challenge the decision. Under the law, a county appeal committee controlled by the board hears the complaint, and after long, unexplained delays the committee threw out the contract. MTS and Veolia (another bidder) both challenged MV’s bid on a number of grounds, arguing, among other things, that this was a phony bid that failed to account for any planning and administration staff. There were fears that MV, to make up for this, would have to cut compensation to bus drivers, which was probably a key factor for the board, whose members tend to be allied with labor unions.
Board members then considered making a bizarre change, to bring the bus system in house and run by the county. Now, the county has always retained ownership of the buses, buildings and equipment in the system but specifically made the deal with MTS in 1975 to have them handle the staff — the drivers, mechanics and administrative staff. The idea was that the county would thus save money on staff costs. Given the current cost of government benefits, wouldn’t this be an even bigger issue today?
Ultimately the board thought better of this and tried to find some middle ground, and decided to turn MTS into a “quasi-governmental” organization, as Dimitrijevic described it in an email to me. “To bring greater direct accountability” to the transit system,” she noted, an ordinance was passed whereby “the Transit system reports directly to the County Executive’s Administration.”
So the board, which distrusts everything Abele does, nonetheless decided to hand him more power over MTS.
In my colleague Jeramey Jannene’s excellent story, 13 Myths About the Strike, MTS spokesperson Brendan Conway, who used to be Abele’s spokesperson, assured Urban Milwaukee that the county exec has had nothing to do with negotiating the deal.
Uh huh. While MTS apparently still has its old board of directors, which oversees its operations, the county board has clearly given MTS a second master, namely the county’s Director of Transportation Brian Dranzik, who in turn reports to Abele. And Abele issued a press release condemning the strike and offering detailed specifics on the labor negotiations, bearing all the earmarks of his management style. Given that Abele has already tried to replace MTS with another company, and given that Abele has been trying for two years to save money on the transit system, I think we can safely assume the MTS stance in the labor negotiations reflects his priorities.
Which, after all, is exactly what the board sought to make happen by bringing MTS under Abele’s control. But like the bad spouse in a poisoned marriage, board members are now trying to undercut Abele. Weishan, as Dan Bice and the Journal Sentinel reported, has been working with the bus driver’s union to defeat management and Abele, even suggesting the workers strike. Mission accomplished.
Uh huh. But isn’t real leadership difficult to accomplish when board members are working to defeat it? It’s quite likely union leaders believe they have considerable support from board members, not just Weishan.
Then there is the issue of the recently passed Right to Work law, which Gov. Scott Walker is touting as a key achievement in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The law allows private sector workers in union shops to refuse to pay union dues, which could destroy all unions, including Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, which represents the county bus drivers. “So the union is under more pressure to get a good deal in order to keep members paying their dues,” as Jannene noted.
All of which puts a lot of pressure on union president James Macon, who must deliver for his workers while trying to deal with the bewildering and poisonous politics of Milwaukee County. The details of the negotiations have gone back and forth, so no one can say with certainty just what the sticking point is, but my sense is that the two sides aren’t that far apart. I think the strike was unnecessary and may hurt the union’s cause in the eyes of taxpayers, but given the confusing cards Macon has been dealt, it might be understandable if he has had trouble formulating the right strategy to win the game.
Update: Jeramey has done numerous helpful updates on the strike which are combined here.