Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who’s To Blame for Bus Strike?

The union? Chris Abele? John Weishan? Scott Walker? A frank assessment.

By - Jul 2nd, 2015 10:51 am
Milwaukee County Transit System

Milwaukee County Transit System

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.

In July 2013, Abele announced the results of the bidding process: the contract would be awarded to a private company, MV Transportation, based in Dallas, a company with operations in numerous other cities.

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.

Dimitrijevic hasn’t offered a word of criticism of Weishan for undercutting the new system the board created. Instead she has heaped blame on Abele in a press release, noting his “failed attempt” to replace MTS without explaining that this was facilitated by a county board decision and praising the board for acting to bring “more accountability” to the transit system by giving Abele more power. “Could the County Executive have prevented this service shutdown by stepping in with a fair compromise? We need real leadership and management now more than ever.”

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who’s To Blame for Bus Strike?”

  1. Will says:

    The Milwaukee County government is an embarrassment to this city. Their existence actually hurts their constituents.

  2. Beer Baron says:

    Abele has been the biggest friend to transit in recent history, while Marina is its biggest foe while giving lip service at best for her support.

    Abele saw the need for change in management, which is correct. Marina stopped it, despite is saving the system tons of money. MV the best choice? No, but rebid it again and get someone else in.

    Abele wants bus rapid transit to improve services. Marina has refused to give opportunities to improve transit. When MCTS got the lawsuit money to run a line to Oak Creek, she rides it and takes selfies of herself like she’s a hero. she never once showed how long it takes to get there or the need to put in BRT or other forms of transit. She tried to take credit for money that only came from a lawsuit.

    Abele wants to invest more in the system. Marina blocks him on the board cause she knows it hinders her political future.

    Abele wants more funding. Marina raided the system with a GO Pass program that no one asked for, but is designed to eventually bankrupt MCTS. The elderly and disabled were not asking for this program, yet she forced it on them knowing it will gut the system. For the record, there were already programs in place to help the indigent get bus passes. Other efficiency programs could’ve been implemented by coupling the new passes with WIC or other state assistance programs to have one card serve all purposes for the poor (other cities do this), but Marina was having none of this, just giving out free passes.

    Abele pushes the Couture project for the streetcar (AKA starter light rail). Marina has pushed against it despite the fact light rail is a boom in every community it touches and will be a boom for Milwaukee.

    And while Abele’s people are out there trying to fight the strike, Marina is out there lambasting leadership (of which she is apart of but apparently doesn’t understand that), while having no problem with board members pushing a strike.

    Marina and many on the board are faux progressives. They pushed a strike knowing it hurts the poor and it hurts the economy. She goes and snaps selfies at rallies and easy issues like gay rights, but doesn’t do actual work. Grassroots rallies are for grassroots, not just a place for her to try and promote herself. The rest of the county needs to be educated on this before she runs against Abele and they need to see she’s a phony who only cares about herself.

    And in the meantime, we need to find a decent candidate in Bayview to defeat her on the county board. If I may speak for all the rest of us in Bayview, I have little time or patience for phony progressives like Marina or Zielinski. We need real leaders.

    The winds of change they are a-blowin’ and it all starts with the next elections.

  3. Peggy Schulz says:

    Thank you, Bruce, for an excellent, in-depth analysis, not only of the current situation, but also, perhaps even more important, the background and history of MCTS and its relationship with Milwaukee County.

  4. Bill Sell says:

    Bruce, I am quoting you, perhaps you would clarify this rather odd assertion?

    “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,…” (referring to Abele’s attempt to privatize transit by hiring MV Transportation)

    The struggle over this decision lasted months, and Marina and the board fought Abele on this point in public.

  5. bruce Murphy says:

    Bill, that’s what I wrote several months after the decision by Abele to award the contract to MV, and no one disputed it then, and I can’t find any such quotes from board members, checking again. Only after the suit by MTS and Veolia did some board members begin to echo the complaints made in the suit. Dimitrijevic delayed appointing a committee to hear the suit with no explanation, and only took action after I wrote this column questioning the delay:

    My column was in January 2014, about six months after the contract award. The whole thing was very peculiar. You had to assume the board opposed the contract award, but no one would explain why.

  6. Bill Sell says:

    Bruce, thanks for clarifying, but I can’t let you off the hook entirely. You clarify that you were using a “quote” (without quotation marks) and no explicit reference to months of intra-County fighting. Fine, I get that clarification but it took time for the politics to line up because Abele was reluctant to release the scoring of the Proposal evaluations. Meanwhile the inboxes of supervisors were being filled with the press reports developed at MV locales. Finally, we learned MV was a loser in the Proposals, but Abele picked them anyway. The Board did its job.

    Your fussing over a temporary silence is of course what a journalist must do. And I thank you for that. But this is 18 months later, and in spite of our need as writers for quotables, some leaders may act prudently.

    As time passed we learned that (barring some action in Madison) that the Board was going to get its say. Silence was appropriate until that record of Abele’s decision was clear. And that is what you left out of your quickie remark; the Board got that point right and we learned stuff about MV that was meant to be a buried record.

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