Transit Strike Hinges On Next Contract Offer
Union members show up in large numbers at county budget hearing.
Members of the local Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 (ATU) went to the annual public budget meeting of the Milwaukee County Board Tuesday asking for funding in the 2023 budget that will allow them to avert a strike.
In early October, management at the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) made a final contract offer to ATU leadership. The union then voted nearly unanimously to reject the contract and give union leaders the authority to call a strike. At the board meeting, some ATU members seemed flabbergasted that the board did not attempt to address the looming transit strike during budget deliberations, and assured supervisors of their seriousness.
Security also remains a critical issue for the union. Nearly every member of the ATU that spoke shared a story of being assaulted while on the job or said they know co-workers that have been assaulted. For years the transit union has complained that the current private security has no law enforcement authority and is slow to respond to calls for help. One operator said she recently had to call 911 from her bus to report a violent incident because the transit security was unresponsive.
The transit system and the union will resume contract negotiations on Nov. 8. And the union has indicated that unless MCTS shows a good faith effort to meet some of the union’s contract demands, there will be a strike.
“We’re at a crossroads with MCTS,” said Shorter. He pointed to services in recent years that were canceled for lack of operators and buses like the Summerfest service, State Fair and Freeway Flyers. “The system is shrinking.”
County Executive David Crowley‘s 2023 budget proposal includes a $4.1 million cut to transit, translating to reduced frequency on bus routes 34, 52, 88 and 92, eliminating the paratransit taxi service and officially eliminating freeway flyers. The transit system is facing a $20 million budget gap in 2025, according to the latest estimate, when federal pandemic stimulus funds run out. The cut in the 2023 budget is intended to soften the landing from the cuts expected by 2025.
The attrition of operators and mechanics is the canary in the coal mine, Shorter explained to supervisors. As Urban Milwaukee has reported, the transit system has hired hundreds of new operators in recent years, but the staffing level has not improved. “We need this contract to make a difference,” Shorter said. “We’re competing with all the other competitors out here in the transportation business, and if we can’t do that, there will be no transit system.”
MCTS has focused its staffing investments in recent years almost entirely on recruitment, with $1,000 hiring bonuses for new drivers. The staffing shortage has downstream effects as the system misses scheduled service for lack of operators and drivers find themselves having to rush to keep up with the new high-frequency bus system that’s running without enough drivers.
“People are fleeing this company like it’s on fire,” said Kyle Handel, a mechanic and ATU board member. “And we’re asking you to help us save the transit system.”
Joyce Jones, an MCTS operator for 21 years, told the board that when she first began she didn’t have to pay for health insurance. Over the years health care costs for transit workers have steadily increased. The result, she said, is that she makes the same pay now as she did when she started two decades ago.
“I enjoy driving the bus and I deserve a raise,” said Jones.
“So this union, all the contracts we’ve been through, we’ve given up wages, we’ve taken concessions for the benefits, over 25 years that I’ve been here,” said Scott Tate. “Now the benefits are going away. But guess what? We didn’t get the wages.”
Handel said that the transit system saved money on health care costs during the pandemic, like many organizations, as fewer people accessed health care services. “We’ve been on the frontline, people have been getting sick, bus drivers have been dying with COVID.” Now, he said, the operators have to cover the cost of increasing health care expenses.
“We need a fair contract. We need something that’s gonna work for us,” said bus operator Johnny Lapkins. “I’m ready to strike. I’m ready to quit.”
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