Graham Kilmer

Bus Drivers Union Leader Forced Out

James Macon loses presidency as International ATU takes over Local 998.

By - Mar 3rd, 2021 07:35 pm
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

The local Amalgamated Transit Union 998 (ATU) which represents county bus drivers has been taken over by the international ATU due to issues involving local union President James Macon.

The local has been put into trusteeship. This means the international organization has suspended the local autonomy for the 998 which represents Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) employees. The executive officers are no longer in charge of running the union, and have been replaced with two ATU International Vice Presidents.

Michelle Sommers, a vice president from Minnesota, and Janis Borchardt, a vice president from Madison, are now the acting trustees of the union.

The impetus for the takeover of the local appears to have been a physical altercation that occurred between two of the local executive officers, Macon and Financial Secretary John Groh.

The two men had a poor working relationship for years that often flared up in arguments, Macon told Urban Milwaukee. In the fall of 2020, during one particularly severe argument, Macon said, “I… put my hands on him.” He said he didn’t strike or punch Groh, but the actual details of the altercation could not be confirmed. Macon conceded it wasn’t right to get physical with Groh.

Macon said the dynamic between him and Groh had been known to the international for years, with vice presidents from the international witnessing the two men blowing up into arguments with one another. He even wrote to to them complaining about it, Macon said.

But Macon is now miffed at the international’s decision to topple the leadership of the union, using the altercation between him and Groh as justification.

In November, the international placed the union under trusteeship. Then on March 1st, International President John A. Costa sent a letter to the executive leadership of the local 998 a letter saying the ATU General Executive Board — comprised of 17 international vice presidents — had reached a decision determining that the “trusteeship was justified and should continue until the affairs of the Local 998 have been placed in proper order.”

This decision, according to the letter, followed a hearing conducted on December 30th and January 11th, Costa wrote. Macon doesn’t feel he was given a fair shake, calling the hearing a “kangaroo court.”

One of the trustees reached by Urban Milwaukee, Sommers, declined to comment saying “it’s an internal matter.”

Now that Macon is no longer president of the union, he is weighing his options. It’s possible he could return as a bus driver, or he may retire. Regardless of what decision he makes, he said, “Deep down in my heart I’m still a bus driver, I feel what they’re going through.”

Macon was a passionate and hard nosed president for the local 998, leading the union through two contentious contract negotiations. In 2015, Macon led a three-day work stoppage to force concessions from MCTS. When the next contract came up, Macon led the union through a contract battle that lasted nearly two years — negotiating for 21 months.

Macon’s sometimes belligerent leadership style seemed to earn him friends and enemies in equal measure. Even today, as the leadership and future of the local 998 remains unsure, Macon said there are loyalists in the union telling him to return so they can vote him into the presidency once more.

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