On day two of transit strike, federal mediator says he'll change his schedule to resume negotiations

MILWAUKEE -- Thursday, July 2nd marked day two of the transit strike -- and people once again had to scramble to find another way to and from work. MCTS bus drivers went on strike at 3 a.m. Wednesday, July 1st after they couldn’t reach a contract agreement with Milwaukee County. The strike is set to continue until 3:00 a.m. Saturday, July 4th.

On Wednesday, FOX6 News reported that the two sides in this case -- MCTS and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 leaders were not negotiating, because a federal mediator is out of town and unavailable. But the federal mediator said Thursday he'll gladly sit down for negotiations -- any time, day or night -- and he'll even change his schedule to do so.

MCTS bus drivers strike

Outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Thursday evening, bus drivers asked Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele for a fair contract.

MCTS bus drivers rally at the Milwaukee County Courthouse

Bus drivers and mechanics have walked off the job, at odds over pay, breaks, benefits, the age of retirement and the ability to hire more part-time workers.

There are no signs this 72-hour strike will end early.

This, as union leaders tell FOX6 News a federal mediator wrote union leaders and MCTS officials Thursday, saying he is available 24/7 to conduct a mediation session mutually agreeable to all parties.

MCTS spokesman Brendan Conway says MCTS would be willing to sit down with union leaders -- but only with the understanding that progress would be made towards a contract agreement.

"We'll talk to them, but they need to move a little bit in our direction," Conway said.

MCTS bus drivers rally at the Milwaukee County Courthouse

We’re told there have been 10 meetings between Milwaukee County representatives and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 leaders. Still, there are many sticking points, and a contract agreement has not been reached.

"We got families to take care of just like everybody else. We've been taking concessions for the last 10 years, but now they want to go up in the cost and charge us money out of our own pockets," Rickie Witherspoon, an MCTS bus driver said.

MCTS bus drivers strike

The strike comes at a very busy time -- ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and during Summerfest's 11-day run.

But perhaps the biggest impact has been felt by those who rely on this public transportation to get to work, to get to the doctor, and to simply get around.

Student body presidents from UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University say the strike is crippling their student bodies who rely on buses for classes, work and internships.

A union representative told FOX6 News they would be willing to go back to the negotiating table -- and so would MCTS officials.

"If we got a call from union leadership -- 'okay, we want to end this strike. We've realized we've greatly inconvenienced people. We should come back,' -- we would do whatever it took to get people into work and buses running," Brendan Conway, MCTS spokesman said.

The two sides last met with a federal mediator for six hours on Tuesday. Union leaders said they were not offered a fair contract — blaming Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who said Tuesday: “The final, added concessions represent our last, best offer. Anything more than this is unsustainable in our county budget and would be irresponsible to the taxpayers we serve.”

MCTS bus drivers strike

“When push came to shove, we said ‘what can we do to solve this?’ They said, ‘here — you need to give us $8 million more over two years,’” Conway said.

Milwaukee County representatives say they’re offering a 7.6% pay increase for drivers over two years.

Union leaders say part of that pay increase comes from the county taking over some of the drivers’ pension payments and another portion from the cost of living increase.

“You’ve got a pension that you want to change that is basically one of the best in the country. Why? It doesn’t make sense,” Macon said.

Union leaders say if it was a straight pay increase, things might be different.

“I can get that passed and have the buses rolling,” James Macon, Local 998 president said.

Bus drivers strike

Other issues include how many part-time drivers the county would hire, and the length of bathroom breaks for drivers.

"You ain't giving us no raise. And it's not about raises. We are not getting raises. Until you sit in our seats -- dealing with these people out here calling us a whole lot of names and saying we wrong for going to the bathroom -- they all lying," Witherspoon said.

"If they want a better contract, I think by walking out and leaving people high and dry for three days is not the best way to achieve that," Conway said.

In a news release on this strike, MCTS officials said the following:

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 998 leaders have called for a work stoppage despite significant attempts and concessions from MCTS during a daylong negotiation session.

The union’s decision means tens of thousands of people who rely on MCTS to get to work, school and doctor’s appointments will have to find other transportation. The strike will also shut down Summerfest service that tens of thousands of people rely on every day to get to the Big Gig.

MCTS presented a contract proposal on Friday that would have increased bus drivers and mechanics pay in exchange for some health care concessions. The average MCTS bus driver will make more than $62,000 this year in salary and overtime.

In an attempt to avoid a strike, MCTS made significant concessions to the union, including:

  • A matching $1,000 Flexible Spending Account for employees to help offset modest increases in healthcare costs. The previous proposal was $500.

  • Capping the amount of part-time drivers MCTS will hire.

  • Some flexibility for how mechanics use their personal time.

Despite numerous recent statements from union leaders that their contract dispute was not over money, the union came to the bargaining table (Tuesday) to ask for $8 million in increased wages.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele issued the following statement Tuesday evening:

Although County Executive Abele is disappointed in (Tuesday’s) decision by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) to reject a reasonable contract offer and strike, he is confident that a deal will soon be agreed to that respects both transit workers and taxpayers.

“The Milwaukee County Transit System is a critical tool for economic development and self-sufficiency, and I am proud of our record of maintaining routes and excellent service without raising fares,” County Executive Abele said. “Taxpayers ride the bus over 150,000 times every single day. In choosing to strike, ATU is punishing county residents that rely on bus service.”

Proposed Contract Facts:

  • The average MCTS bus driver makes more than $62,000 per year in salary and overtime.

  • Between cost of living increases, pay increases, and pension contribution decreases, ATU members would see a salary increase of up to 3.3% in the first year with an additional 1% increase to base pay on top of that in the second year. Additionally, ATU members were offered a $1,000 employer matching contribution to their Flexible Spending Accounts during negotiations.

  • The net compensation increase (salary and benefits) for ATU members over the next two years is $3,580 for workers with an individual healthcare plan and $2,848 for workers with a family healthcare plan.

In a time when state transportation funding has been flat and federal funding has declined, ATU members rejected multiple contract compromises that increased overall compensation while allowing for the continuation of full transit services, stable fares, and respect for county taxpayers.

Throughout negotiations, the county has and will continue to remain focused on one outcome only – the best service for transit riders now and in the future. The emphasis is on providing a high quality transit system while modernizing and expanding services.

“From low income workers to Summerfest attendees, the ATU’s decision to strike has far reaching consequences for the people of Milwaukee County,” Abele said. “To be clear, the final added concessions (Tuesday) represent our last, best offer. Anything more than this is unsustainable in our county budget and would be irresponsible to the taxpayers we serve."

On Monday, Local 998 members voted to reject MCTS' latest contract offer, and to strike. The vote Monday night was 93% to reject the new contract being offered, and 92% in favor of a strike.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb says there's an easy solution to get buses back on the road -- let an independent arbitrator decide which side is right.

"I'm worried we are essentially wasting three days.  I don't know why we are not in a room today. If his deal is such a good deal, and theirs is so bad, then an arbitrator should look and see which is a fair and reasonable deal," Lipscomb said.

Union leaders say they wanted to go into interest arbitration Tuesday, where an impartial arbitrator would make the final decisions, but county officials said no.

"We don't have interest in going to arbitration.  We have limited tax dollars.  An arbitrator doesn't look at your fiscal future. We need to have a sustainable transit system that will continue to run for those who need it," Conway said.

In speaking about the strike on Wednesday, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said he wants bus drivers back on the job.

"The riders -- they pay for a service to get to work.  They didn't do anything wrong.  I can't offer more without pulling from some other service the taxpayers are paying for,  and I'm not going to do that," Abele said.

MCTS has about 150,000 passenger rides a day. This is the first MCTS bus driver strike since the late 1970s.

MCTS spokesman Brendan Conway says all new and updated information in the coming days will be available to the public at RideMCTS.com or by calling 414-988-5966.

This strike includes MCTS Route 143 that serves Ozaukee County and MCTS Route 6, 61 and 279 that serve Waukesha and Washington Counties.

Paratransit service is available during the strike for passengers who are eligible. For questions call 343-1700 or visit http://www.ridemcts.com/programs/transit-plus

MCTS will continue to hand out the GO Pass to eligible seniors and persons with disabilities. For more on the pass please visit http://www.ridemcts.com/fares-passes/go-pass

CLICK HERE for further coverage of the transit strike via FOX6Now.com.