Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Union Pushes MCTS To Diversify Management

Union leaders say they've seen progress, but challenge MCTS to do more.

By - Jun 10th, 2023 01:30 pm
MCTS Bus. Photo by Michael Horne.

MCTS Bus. Photo by Michael Horne.

Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union 998 challenged the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) Tuesday to improve diversity in management and continue working to amend practices that lead to unequal treatment based on race.

MCTS officials were presenting a report on the system’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program. Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, which represents MCTS bus operators and mechanics, used the meeting as an opportunity to provide testimony on the issues of race and diversity within the transit system.

“When you talk about the barrier between minorities and this company, I feel like it’s going in the right direction, but it’s been so long,” said ATU Vice President Michael Brown. He said he sees race as a factor in many of the system’s decisions, including how they design routes for the operators. He noted that in the past he and others could predict promotions based on race.

“If you talk to drivers out here — we got Fond du Lac station and we got KK station — we feel like KK is Caucasian, we feel like Fond du Lac is minority,” Brown said. “We feel like KK gets the better routes and Fond du Lac gets whatever is left over.”

Brown explained that, for example, Route 14 was split between the two stations “They gave KK the gravy part that goes to Bayshore from Downtown and you gave Fond du Lac the 16th Street side where they’re so-called ‘bad’ with the Hamilton High School students,” he said. “That’s got to stop.”

Since the launch of the new bus rapid transit service, Connect 1, on June 4, Route 14 no longer runs along S. 16th Street.

These problems, Brown said, have been going on for years. He said the newly hired Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer Kevina Vann, has been talking with the union and “is a really good person.” He noted that she and new Managing Director Denise Wandke have told the union that change is coming. “But when?” he said.

“Yes the company’s going in a new direction, yes they got rid of Dan Boehm — because everything you read about Dan Boehm is true,” Brown said.

ATU President Donnell Shorter said “diversity plays a big role” in both the community and the workplace.

“When you’re a young person coming into that workplace, if you don’t see leadership that looks like you, it may be hard to communicate to your supervisors, your managers, what’s going on in your life that could affect you on your job,” Shorter said. “Also, when you don’t see leadership that looks like you, you may not stay at that employer long.”

Shorter noted that the county’s Office of the Comptroller conducted a diversity audit in 2013 and that the company has “truly changed from what they were in 2013.” That audit found concerns among MCTS employees about unfair treatment, hiring practices, lack of promotional opportunities, favoritism, nepotism, harassment and retaliation. But the union president noted that greater diversity in the management of MCTS is still needed and would make a difference for the rank-and-file workers.

Sandra Kellner, MCTS chief administrative officer, presented MCTS’s annual equal opportunity report and said, “We’re happy to report of course, that in 2023, we have achieved all of our goals. In fact, we’ve exceeded all of our goals for utilization of minorities in all categories, from directors to craft workers, operators, laborers, helpers, and whatnot.”

Though, when it comes to women in leadership positions, “in this case, we’re not where we want to be,” Kellner said.

A significant chunk of the transit system’s workforce will be retiring in the coming years, the report noted, which offers an opportunity: “Although this is challenging for the organization, it also provides an opportunity to hire externally and promote internally qualified minorities and females into these positions that are scheduled to be vacated within the next 12-24 months.”

The transit system launched a mentorship program in early 2023 to give employees an opportunity to participate in professional development to “foster an atmosphere of inclusivity and increase employee engagement,” according to the report. It also does training on sexual harassment and microaggressions.

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