Graham Kilmer

Transit Negotiations Over, What’s Next?

MCTS makes its best and final offer. Union must accept it or go on strike.

By - Aug 13th, 2019 05:19 pm
A Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus from Gillig. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus from Gillig. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Negotiations are over between the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 and the Milwaukee County Transit System, but disagreements over the contract persist.

MCTS submitted its best and final contract offer to the union Monday, after more than 18 months of negotiations. The union will assess and vote on the contract, but President James Macon said that likely won’t be until early September.

Macon said he hadn’t gone over over the contract proposal thoroughly yet, but said, “I wouldn’t recommend my people signing it.” If the union doesn’t approve the contract the only tool it has left is to strike. The union struck in 2015.

But, if it strikes, legally speaking, the two parties will be at an impasse, and MCTS will be able to implement the contract without an ATU vote, said Nate Holton, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for MCTS and lead negotiator. Though the union could then put forward a legal challenge, the outcome of that would be determined by the National Labor Relations Board.

In July, MCTS officials made major concessions to the union. Specifically, they dropped a health care provision calling for co-insurance and reduced the out-of-pocket maximums and premiums for employees, though they are still higher than in the previous contract. But the wage increase it offered didn’t meet the union’s demands and there isn’t a guarantee in the contract that the union’s security concerns will be addressed. And Macon said he wants a guarantee.

After MCTS submitted their offer with concessions in July, the ATU 998 executive board held a vote to redraw their proposal and ask for arbitration on the company’s latest contract offer. Macon, for the past several months, has refused arbitration offers from the company. Macon lost the board vote in July, and the union asked the company for arbitration, which MCTS then promptly refused. Holton said the bus company had by then moved as far as its budget would allow.

Less than 24 hours after MCTS offered its final and best contract offer to the public, MCTS released a statement saying it would likely have to cut 16 bus routes based on a projected deficit. Officials have said for months now that the transit system is facing a nearly $6 million deficit for 2019.

But Macon believes the county still has the money to move more toward the union’s position on the contract. And he is adamant that security on the buses be addressed. But whether he has union support for a strike remains to be seen.

A provision in the contract would give MCTS mechanics a significant pay raise. The company has had trouble retaining mechanics. “Our mechanics are underpaid relative to the market,” Holton said. Macon intimated that getting the mechanics to vote no on a contract that gives them a “major pay raise” will be difficult, suggesting there could be a split in the union between operators and mechanics on the contract.

Right now, the question of whether Milwaukee County will see another transit strike rests on how many union members will back Macon and vote for it.

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