The Milwaukee County Transit System and the union representing MCTS employees, ATU Local 998, have once again found themselves at odds over a new contract for employees.
Health insurance costs are at the core of the disagreement. Union leaders are trying to protect the current health insurance benefits of MCTS employees, while MCTS is trying to balance its annual budget without cutting bus routes. While agreeing to a four percent raise for employees, MCTS is seeking to raise health insurance premiums from 13 percent to 14 percent and incrementally increase copays starting in 2021. Despite 16 negotiation sessions between MCTS and ATU Local 998, negotiations have recently come to a standstill because union leaders have stopped attending the sessions.
For their part, MCTS and County Executive Chris Abele’s administration have already made significant concessions to the union by agreeing to open arbitration and a four percent base wage increase. Open arbitration means that an independent, third party will review both the MCTS and ATU proposals and make a final decision on employee wages, health insurance, and other conditions. All options are on the table for the independent arbitrator, which could favor the union position because the arbitrator could award the employees even larger salary increases. This is why MCTS has opposed open arbitration in the past.
Unfortunately, local and international union leaders have been stonewalling negotiations hoping to gain leverage for their position. Union leaders have used these tactics before–including going through with a short strike in 2015–despite the negative consequences these tactics have for all Milwaukee County residents.
For the good of the community, it is time for ATU to say “yes” to a demand they have been making for many years. ATU Local 998 president James Macon was right to ask for open arbitration as recently as March 18, and now that he has won this significant agreement, union leaders need to come back to the table, accept open arbitration, and finish the negotiations.
ATU Local 998 would be wrong to continue dragging out these negotiations, or worse, going through with another strike. MCTS provides more than 100,000 rides every day, meaning tens of thousands of Milwaukee County residents rely on public transit to get to work, school and back home. A strike would hurt our local economy and dis-proportionally hurt people of color. And while we are sympathetic to the needs of the employees, we also understand the reality of the Milwaukee County budget. State aid and funding for public transit has not increased in nearly a decade–while costs, including wages and health care benefits for MCTS employees–have increased every year.
Rather than fighting the administration, ATU Local 998 should join with County Executive Chris Abele, the county board, and a growing list of community and municipal leaders to ask for increased funding for public transit from the state of Wisconsin. Governor Tony Evers delivered on his campaign promise to include an increase in funding for public transit and local governments in his proposed budget, and now we need the Republican-led state legislature to agree to these critical investments in public transit.
Put simply, we have a choice: do we want to keep fighting over the limited funding we have for critical social services right now, or do we want to fight together for a larger pot of funding from the state of Wisconsin, which will benefit not just MCTS employees, but all county and municipal employees? The choice seems obvious to us.
In the meantime, MCTS has offered the union an olive branch by agreeing to their terms for open arbitration. Now it is time for ATU Local 998 to meet MCTS halfway so that Milwaukee County bus drivers, riders, businesses and residents don’t get hurt.