Contract in hand, Milwaukee bus union looks to 2020 county elections

Milwaukee downtown bus
Downtown Milwaukee

The ratification of a new contract for Milwaukee County bus drivers and mechanics averted a threatened walkout, but deeper differences remain about the management of the transit system. 

Lingering conflicts over funding, bus route management, and driver security have the potential to play a role in the race next spring for Milwaukee County executive and probably in some County Board races.

As reported in Urban Milwaukee, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 members on Friday night approved a contract with the Milwaukee County Transit System that raised pay and maintained fully paid health insurance instead of acceding to management’s attempt to impose employee co-payments. The final agreement also included backpay in the form of a bonus of up to $800 — a persistent sticking point in the last months of negotiations. 

The union’s last contract expired March 31, 2018, and was extended until Dec. 31, 2018. Members have been working without either a contract or a formal extension since Jan. 1, 2019.

In reaching the agreement, the union dropped its demand — which had been vigorously rejected by transit system management and by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele — that would have permitted bus employees to carry weapons on the job for self-protection. Yet that demand appeared to be more of a sideshow. Speaking to Urban Milwaukee, union president James Macon focused instead on hiring county sheriff’s deputies.

The union also pushed back during negotiations this past summer and early fall on proposed transit cuts, which were subsequently reversed.

Throughout the dispute, Abele was a recurring target as the union rallied members as well support from the public for its bargaining position.

A report is still pending that analyzes the transit system finances. Data previously released  during negotiations in August by economist Peter Donahue raised questions about how the county set budgets compared with how it actually spent funds. 

In an early summary for the union, Donahue cited the county’s own financial reports to support a claim that the system overbudgeted 2018 personnel expenses by $15 million while spending $16.53 million less than it had budgeted on that year’s operating expenses. With his findings, he called into question claims of a looming $8.7 million budget deficit that the county was citing in its negotiations with the union. 

County and transit system officials rejected Donahue’s analysis but ultimately withdrew several concessionary demands.

Donahue told the Wisconsin Examiner earlier this fall that he expected to complete his analysis and submit a final report on his findings in February 2020. If the union follows through on that timing, it is poised to use the safety and route-cut issues to influence the election of Abele’s successor following the county executive’s surprise decision not to run again. 

After the contract was ratified, the union put an ad on radio station WRRD-AM 1510 thanking public supporters for helping the union achieve its contract objectives on wages and health benefits. The spot also sketched out the union’s continuing agenda, focusing on safety as well as resisting route cuts.

Its final sentence: “With your continued support we can have a real pro-transit Milwaukee County executive in the next election.”

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, 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. At the Examiner office first thing in the morning, he's the one with YoutTube on streaming Springsteen concerts, 1970s Americana rock and the occasional British Progressive music cuts in between model railroad how-to clips. So far his campaign to build an HO layout in the our office conference space has produced only pats on the head and eyerolls from his colleagues, but he loves them anyway.