After 18 months of contract mediation, talks between the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 788 and Metro/Bi-State officials have ground to an uncomfortable halt, with both sides waiting for the other to hit the gas.
Transit bus drivers, mechanics and other employees voted last week on recommendations made by a neutral mediator in the ATU’s ongoing negotiations with Metro.
Earlier this month, Terry Bethel, a federal mediator found that workers who provide public transportation should be given a “livable wage increase” and that a 401(k) plan should not replace Metro workers’ “modest pension plan.”
Metro criticized those findings in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noting that the mediator acknowledges the pension plan is “critically underfunded,” and adding the mediator’s recommended salary increases — which include a large retroactive pay hike — fail to “properly evaluate the agency’s ability to pay (the) increases without significantly impairing service to the public.”
Local 788 President and Business Agent Michael Breihan minced no words in describing Metro’s response.
“Metro spent close to $500,000 on this mediation process, taxpayers’ money, and then, to not live up to the decision sucks,” said Breihan.
Breihan said Local 788 advocated for changes to the health and pension plan during negotiations that would make certain Metro’s bottom line was not put in any danger.
But Metro, in it’s response to the mediator’s ruling rejected the proposed pay increases, the proposal to keep the current pension plan and the proposal to keep health care costs, down, instead proposing employees share of the costs go up 14 to 16 percent.
Local 788 represents Metro bus drivers, MetroLink operators and mechanics. It is the largest at the agency, representing some 1,500 workers.
Citing a breakdown in talks, Local 788 took a strike authorization vote in June. The membership voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, but had been awaiting the results of the mediator’s findings.
Now, Breihan said, it seems like Metro is trying to push members into a strike, even going so far as to instruct staff on what to do when one occurs.
“Emails have been sent to heads of all facilities on what they need to do when we strike. They’re getting their people together now assuming there will be a strike,” Breihan said. “Right now they’re provoking everything they can possibly provoke.”
NO RAISE SINCE 2008
Metro’s ATU employees have not seen a pay increase since 2008 and have been without a contract since 2009,” Breihan said.
For five years, Metro Workers attempted to reach an agreement with Metro/Bi-State on livable wages for Metro Workers and a modest pension plan that would ensure earned retirement with dignity.
Last week, Breihan and officers of Local 788 put the mediator’s suggestion to a vote of the membership. Although the mediator’s recommendations are non-binding, Breihan wants to avert a strike and looked to the membership for their opinions.
The members rejected changes to the retirees’ health care and active employees’ medical insurance, but they accepted the pension plan for new hires and accepted the wage proposal the mediator suggested, Breihan said.
“The vote went just like we thought it would,” Breihan said. “At this point we’re deadlocked. Our next step is to contact Metro CEO John Nations and his team and see when we can get together to sit down and talk.”
METRO WON’T BUDGE
Breihan says Local 788 has always maintained that livable wages and retirement with dignity for past, present and future members is possible, and was very pleased to see that the impartial mediator agreed with them. Unfortunately, Metro/Bi-State won’t budge, Breihan said.
“The workers barely have enough money to pay their bills, much less contribute to a 401(k) plan,” Breihan said.
Given the fact that Nations was paid a $60,000 salary increase when he was hired, and gave his non-union metro workers a 6 percent raise over the last few months, “it seems only fitting that the paychecks of the rest of the hardworking employees of Metro be given a modest, livable wage, pay bump,” Breihan said.
“We’re willing to accept the mediator’s decision,” Breihan said. “But Metro won’t negotiate in good faith.”
In response, Local 788 has reached out to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, city aldermen and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, asking them to contact Metro’s Board of Commissioners to try to get them to compromise.
“They [the board] can override any decision Nations makes,” Breihan said. “We say, decide the contract, and it will be up in 2015, then revisit the pension plan and if it doesn’t improve, maybe there is a reason to do something else. Just don’t talk about eliminating something without giving us a chance to try to improve it.
“Voters passed Proposition A (a half-cent sales tax approved by St. Louis County voters in 2010) to sustain the Metro Transit operation,” Breihan said. “That should include taking care of its employees. What good is a great transit system when employees are unhappy and feeling mistreated on the job?”