Graham Kilmer

MCTS and Transit Union Will Resume Contract Negotiations in November

Transit union has rejected a contract offer, authorized a strike.

By - Oct 19th, 2022 03:09 pm
Milwaukee County Transit System bus. Photo by Dave Reid.

Milwaukee County Transit System bus. Photo by Dave Reid.

In the first week of October, negotiations between the Milwaukee County Transit System and the union representing bus operators stalled after the union voted to reject the company’s final contract offer and authorized a strike.

But negotiations are set to resume in the coming weeks.

While the leadership of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 998 has not yet called a strike, members recently told Urban Milwaukee that the possibility they will is not to be taken lightly.

But it’s unlikely a strike will occur anytime during the next two and half weeks, as both parties have agreed to resume negotiations on Nov. 8.

Negotiations on a three-year contract have been underway since April. The last time ATU and MCTS negotiated a contract, it took nearly two years. A strike was authorized then, too, but never called. During contract negotiations in 2015 ATU executed a three-day strike, its first strike since 1978.

ATU President Donnell Shorter and vice president Michael Brown told Urban Milwaukee that the major contract items they are seeking movement on are wages and healthcare.

In a statement after the union strike and contract votes, the transit system said: “MCTS has made what we believe to be a fair offer that includes minimal healthcare changes and up to a 9% wage increase over the three-year period.”

Health care premiums and deductibles are often a point of contention in contract negotiations, not just for ATU but many unions. Health care is a major contract item that the union held out for during the last round of negotiations.

Once again it’s an issue. The issue is the deductible being proposed by MCTS, which the union feels is too high. Additionally, the wage increases being proposed are too low, according to the union.

Shorter told Urban Milwaukee that compared to peer transit systems, Milwaukee transit workers are well behind their peers in terms of wages. He said ATU is pushing for a cumulative 16% wage increase over the next three years — or 8% in the first year of the contract and 4% during the following two years.

The wage issue, Shorter said, is one of the keys to solving the transit system’s retention problem. Driving a bus is a very difficult job, he said, and people are less likely to keep doing it when they can make better money somewhere else.

“That wage isn’t saying that we’re greedy,” he said. “That wage is saying that we need someone else to join our team and take the pressure off of us.”

Problems with employee retention have left the transit system so short handed that mandatory overtime has become an additional stressor for workers, and scheduled service has been canceled because there weren’t enough operators to run them.

As Urban Milwaukee has reported, the transit system is facing an unprecedented budget crisis in the coming years. It has faced declining ridership for approximately 40 years, but the problem was supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders, bus capacity limits and remote work reshaping the transportation landscape.

In 2025, the transit system is projected to face an approximately $20 million budget deficit. The county has maintained the system’s current footprint in recent years with an infusion of nearly $130 million in one-time federal stimulus funds released during the pandemic. But state aid was cut at the same time. The 2023 budget includes a $4.1 million budget cut intended to soften the landing from the fall from the system’s fiscal cliff in two years.

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