By Maria Corpus
When reality hit that Milwaukee County drivers and mechanics would hold a 72-hour work stoppage, members at All Peoples Church – an Evangelical Lutheran congregation in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood – came together to provide a helping hand.
“It started with just one person saying, ‘I can help give a ride to somebody,’” said Rev. Steve Jerbi, senior pastor at All Peoples Church.
“As we shared that news, then there were more and more folks who said, ‘I want to be a part of helping the community get through these days.’”
The first day of the bus stoppage on Wednesday brought 15 volunteers to All Peoples Church.
Together, they provided as many as 30 individuals with rides by early afternoon.
Social media, radio and other outlets spread word about the congregation’s carpool services to work, medical appointments, and other engagements.
“Basically the phones are ringing constantly,” Jerbi said on Wednesday.
The great need for alternative transportation comes as a result of failed contract negotiations between the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 998, which represents 750 drivers as well as mechanics, and the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).
James Macon, president of ATU Local 998, told the Milwaukee Courier the main disagreement is over MCTS’s push to hire a few hundred part-time workers.
“You bring all these part timers in, with no benefits and not paying into the pension, so now who’s paying for the pension?” Macon said.
Additional disagreements are over wage compensation and the time allotted for bathroom breaks, according to Macon.
The average MCTS bus driver earns more than $62,000 in salary and overtime, earning $23.78 an hour, according to an MCTS statement. Currently, the contract issues a minimum of four minutes for a restroom stop at a route’s turnaround point, according to MCTS.
During Tuesday’s meeting with the union and federal mediator, MCTS offered a matching $1,000 flexible spending account to help with increases in healthcare costs.
Originally, the four-year contract presented by MCTS on June 26 offered $500 in flexible spending.
The company also offered to cap the amount of part-time drivers it would hire, and presented some flexibility for how mechanics utilize personal time. However, MCTS’s concessions did not agree with the union because of the prospect of hiring part time workers.
The union also reportedly requested $8 million in increased wages, which the company did not agree with.
Macon said the union’s decision is not a strike, but a job stoppage.
“We consider it a job stoppage because we offered arbitration,” he said. “[We offered] to go to a federal arbitrator to make a determination of the contract, and MCTS rejected it.”
When asked if another job stoppage would be organized after Saturday, July 4, Macon said he had no plans.
“I’m not planning on doing anything, but trying to get people back to work and getting my members a fair contract,” he said.
“My plan was not to do any stoppage, but when you’re forced into a corner and you have no other choice, and [the company is] trying to shove something down your throat, what do people think that we should do?”
MCTS, County Executive Chris Abele and countless businesses have expressed their disagreement with the bus stoppage, and urge the union to restore transit as soon as possible.
Until scheduled routes resume on Saturday, individuals who depend on the bus are left to pursue alternative options such as bikes, taxis and community carpools.
On Wednesday, Rev. Steve Jerbi expressed some uncertainty as to whether the congregation’s carpool services would continue through Friday night.
“We are kind of taking this one day at a time and watching how it unfolds,” he said.
However, the congregation organized an online sign-up for volunteers and for people in need of a ride.
All Peoples Church named the carpool the “Milwaukee Solidarity Volunteer Driver Program.” The sign-up included pick-up locations and times that were available through Friday.
“I think this is a great chance to say, ‘we want to support the work stoppage, support transit workers, and support our community,” Jerbi said.
“And, to make sure that somebody that’s trying to get to their job isn’t pitted against a transit worker who’s fighting for worker rights.”
“We want to find a way to build unity among all workers.”
This is the first transit strike since the late 1970s.