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Milwaukee County bus drivers and mechanics march for decent contract

By Ryan Hamann

ATU 998 President Donnell Shorter talks about the conditions of MCTS workers.

Milwaukee, WI – On November 16, nearly 50 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 998 and their supporters marched from their union hall to the Milwaukee County Courthouse, raising the demands for greater security on their buses, better healthcare, and an overall decent contract. Chants of “Who are we? ATU!” and “Who moves this city? We move this city!” could be heard as the demonstrators marched through the streets of downtown Milwaukee. At least one on-duty MCTS bus driver along the route opened her window with a beaming smile and voiced her support for the action.

ATU 998 represents the bus drivers for Milwaukee County Transit Services and the mechanics who maintain those buses. These workers have been in contract negotiations with Milwaukee County since April of this year, but negotiations came to a standstill in October when the members voted to reject the county’s final offer. The rejection was followed by a successful strike ratification vote, but no strike action has been taken as of the writing of this article. Negotiations with the county are expected to resume on November 18, but the union is adamant in their demands.

ATU 998 Vice President Michael Brown spoke, referring to County Executive David Crowley, “Crowley, I hope you’re listening, because we’re tired. During COVID, we worked 24 hours a day. We kept those buses moving. And you forgot about us. You said you were gonna take care of us, but you didn’t. So now we’re asking you to give us a fair contract. You’ve doubled [the cost of] healthcare for us. Hell, the pay don’t even match with inflation. You said you were gonna take care of all the departments that work for the county, but you forgot about transit, and we’re calling you out.”

ATU 998 President Donnell Shorter picked up the same line as his VP. “When the pandemic first started, MCTS didn’t want their drivers to wear facemasks to ‘protect their image.’ They put the company’s interests before those of their workers. And then, when the pandemic got worse, MCTS stopped allowing workers to come into the administration building to even use the bathroom, once again putting the company over their employees. And then, when the vaccine was made available to the public, the county gave other workers a day's wages to go and get vaccinated, but they only offered transit workers $100.”

“I did contact Crowley on that and he wanted to keep it the way it was, told us to talk at contract time,” Shorter continued. “Now it’s contract time and we’re asking you to pay up.”

A point that highlighted the demand for greater security on the job was the fact that Milwaukee County is suppressing news about drivers being assaulted by angry passengers. The issue of safety is one that all workers at the rally, transit or otherwise, felt strongly about, although the particulars of their respective jobs are different. Whether it’s package handlers being overworked in the package hub, or healthcare workers facing unsafe patient loads, or manufacturing workers being expected to speed up production, safety measures are slashed in all industries to help make more money for the bosses.

Allies present at the action included members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 344, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 212, and the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (WFNHP) Local 5000.

Yasin Madhi, president of United Auto Workers Local 180, which represents almost 700 manufacturing workers at a factory in nearby Racine who’ve been on strike since April, was also there and spoke in solidarity with the drivers and mechanics. The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association had several members at the demonstration and delivered a message of solidarity to their union comrades in their fight against MCTS.

“Our community relies on public transportation here in Milwaukee. We are here today to support our brothers and sisters at ATU because just like public schools can’t run without us, public transportation cannot run without ATU,” said Adrienne Hicks, a member of MTEA and president of the Milwaukee Educational Assistants’ Association. “With gas prices up, our city should be expanding public transit, getting more people out of their cars and onto buses. Students, educators and MPS families rely on public transportation and we demand the county invest in transit workers and in our public transit system.”

The rally at the courthouse ended with ATU members passing out flyers calling for action in the form of phone calls and emails to members of the Milwaukee County Executive Board pressuring them to meet the demands of the transit workers for better pay, better healthcare and better security on the job. ATU 998 VP Michael Brown assured the crowd that there will be future actions if their contract demands are not met.

#MilwaukeeWI #PublicSectorUnions #transitWorkers #contractFight