Bus Drivers’ Union Fights New Contract
Transit system cites $6 million deficit, wants workers to pay more for health care.
Contract negotiations between the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) and the union representing its employees has reached a boiling point over healthcare.
MCTS wants to move its employees to a co-insurance plan resulting in more out-of-pocket expenses for the workers. The position of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 (ATU) has been that such a switch is unacceptable and would affect take-home pay and work quality for drivers and other MCTS employees.
Meanwhile, MCTS points to a report showing the system faces a $6 million deficit, and warns that if workers don’t accept a co-insurance health plan, routes will be cut.
Nate Holton, who is director of diversity and inclusion at MCTS and was formerly County Executive Chris Abele’s deputy chief of staff, is the lead negotiator for MCTS on the ATU contract. On Wednesday he offered an ultimatum to the county board’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee: “If we have to cut $6.4 million we will have to cut bus routes and that is not something that we want to do.”
ATU has not responded well to this threat. Members have pointed to surpluses run by MCTS in the past and questioned why those weren’t dropped back into the transit budget. And at a meeting of the Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee Wednesday, Committee Chairman John Weishan, Jr. called MCTS’ position “ill informed” and “inappropriate.”
Weishan admonished MCTS to look elsewhere in the company for savings and to negotiate with the union on other potential concessions. “To say that you’re giving people a choice between healthcare and cutting routes is inappropriate,” he said.
Michael Brown, a member of the ATU Executive Board and a bus operator, said if the co-insurance plan goes forward, out-of-pocket health care expenses could significantly drive down take home pay for workers. And members of the union have been asking ATU 998 President James Macon to call a strike vote as far back as six months ago. Macon said he doesn’t want to strike yet, noting the strife it would cause riders that rely on the buses. The union struck during Summerfest in 2015.
Negotiations for now are slogging on. Macon said if MCTS dropped its co-insurance proposal they could agree on a contract soon. But as of now, it’s a non-starter. Negotiations have gone on for nearly a year now, and Dan Boehm, MCTS managing director, said it was at this point during the last contract negotiation that a contract was agreed upon.
But Macon clearly feels his union is not at the end of negotiations, and complained that MCTS has negotiated with some union members outside of contract meetings. “My mechanics said the company was negotiating with them about their salaries,” Macon said.
In recent months Macon has had exchanges with managers and supervisors at MCTS during which he admits he “cussed them out.” He said there were serious workplace quality violations involving unfinished work at a station, policy changes within the company and issues ongoing with contract negotiations. For this reason, Macon said MCTS has had security remove him from the grounds at the Fond du Lac Station. This has limited his ability to properly perform his duties as union president, Macon said, which he feels was the real motive behind his barring.