Union questions the numbers at Milwaukee County Transit

Contract vote set for Thursday, but management and labor don't agree

Milwaukee County Transit bus
The union representing Milwaukee County Transit Workers will vote Thursday on a new contract. Photo by Jeramey Jannene, Creative Commons.

As Milwaukee bus drivers prepare to vote Thursday on the Milwaukee County Transit System’s latest contract offer, their union is accusing MCTS management of overstating the system’s financial straits by millions of dollars while implementing route cuts that would further weaken the bus service.

MCTS management is rejecting the union’s claims as nothing more than a contract negotiating ploy and denies the union’s assertions.

Drivers and other employees represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 have been working since the first of the year without a contract, and for nearly a year and a half since their last contract expired on March 31, 2018. A formal contract extension expired Dec. 31, 2018, and was not extended further.

This coming Thursday, rather than voting on a mutually settled tentative agreement endorsed by the union, union members will vote on the offer MCTS management submitted at the bargaining table in early August. 

If members reject the package, said union spokesman Bruce Colburn, there will be an additional vote on whether to authorize an eventual work stoppage. But he downplayed the immediacy of a walkout. “The first push would be to come back to the table and get a fair contract,” Colburn said.

The package includes a 2% raise and cost-of-living language, according to a statement issued by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele last week. Still, the two sides remain divided over whether the increases will be retroactive, qualifying members for back pay, and on how to respond to drivers’ concerns about safety. 

Abele in his statement called a proposal to arm drivers “a nonstarter,” while Colburn said that measure was sought “out of the frustration of [MCTS management] never being willing to put something in the contract that was enforceable” to ensure drivers were safe from being attacked on the bus.

‘Budget hole’ dispute

But the union and the county also remain divided over MCTS management’s assertions that a so-called “budget hole” is forcing the system to cut routes, forcing layoffs. 

An Aug. 22 letter from the county to transit union members asserted that the bus system faced a shortfall of $8.7 million for 2020. In response, the union commissioned San Francisco economic consultant Peter Donahue to review Milwaukee County Comprehensive Annual Financial Report documents for 2018 and previous years. 

That study is not complete, said Colburn, because the union and Donahue are awaiting additional data from the county not found in the comprehensive report.

But in a letter to Local 998 leaders that was distributed to news organizations this past Thursday, Donahue said that “MCTS’s projected 2020 ‘budget hole’ should be regarded skeptically.”

Donahue said the 2018 CAFR “shows that MCTS actual operating expenses were under budget by $16.53 million or 9.7%, mainly by overbudgeting MCTS personnel expenses by $15.62 million or 14%.”

Going back through previous year’s CAFR documents, Donahue said, he found recurring instances in which transit system personnel budgets were on average 8.8% more than needed. That resulted in MCTS operating expenses that were under budget by 6.6% on average, he said.

“Since 2015, $39.93 million budgeted for MTSC personnel expenses have gone unspent,” Donahue said in his letter.

In an open letter to union leaders distributed the same day as Donahue’s letter, Abele was silent on the specific assertions in Donahue’s letter. 

The county executive defended the MCTS management’s contract offer and renewed the assertion that the county “has reached a financial crisis point” where the transit system is concerned, exacerbated by state-imposed caps on what the county can collect in taxes. He called for “a long-term funding solution from Madison so that we can preserve the high quality transit service for our residents, and do right by our drivers who go above and beyond to ensure Milwaukeeans get to where they need to go.” 

MCTS spokesman Nate Holton disputed Donahue’s claims, charging that in the consultant  the union “hired someone to cherry pick numbers out of context.”

“No, we haven’t been over budget,” Holton said Saturday. “We have a serious revenue problem” that required relief from the legislature. “We don’t have enough money to continue our present level of service.”

Colburn didn’t dispute the argument that Milwaukee needs more state help to serve the bus system, but charged Abele had spent “almost no time trying to lobby to gain allies, to gain support for transit,” and that the level of state support was irrelevant to the budgeting problems at the heart of the union’s complaint. 

Route cut impact

The union-management clash extends to recent bus route cuts, including their impact on the city’s mostly African-American central city residents.

Holton said the recent reductions were made with “racial equity” in mind, and focused on routes serving residents more likely to have other options in their commute, such as freeway flyer routes used by suburbanites.

“It’s better than cutting service for people who have no alternative,” said Holton, pointing to central city residents in particular. 

But Colburn, reiterating the union’s contention that the cuts weren’t necessary in the first place, said that reducing routes providing more suburban access hurts the system by undercutting suburban support for transit.

In addition, he noted, reducing suburban routes cuts off city residents from suburban jobs, where the number of jobs has been increasing faster than in the city. 

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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