Pension dispute threatens to halt Metro system

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1611 South Broadway in St. Louis last week to hear Union President Mike Breihan (at the podium) update them on the union’s contract negotiations.  Labor Tribune photo
1611 South Broadway in St. Louis last week to hear Union President Mike Breihan (at the podium) update them on the union’s contract negotiations.
Labor Tribune photo

Tensions were high between the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788 and the Bi-State Development Agency, which runs the St. Louis Metro system, after the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

“We had 93 percent of the members that voted willing to put their livelihood on the line for something they believed it,” Local 788 President Michael Breihan said.

Breihan said the union vote on June 11 was the first part of a process that could potentially lead to a strike. Breihan has already taken the next step – asking the international union to sanction a strike.

The 1,200-member bargaining unit of Local 788 is also awaiting a decision from nonbinding arbitration it has been in with Metro.

Breihan said the union had been in arbitration with Metro for about 15 months since its last contract extension expired.

If it comes to a strike, Breihan said, the work stoppage wouldn’t begin before mid-July.

Missouri state law appears to bar a strike; Illinois law does not. Metro serves St. Clair County, but Metro is based in Missouri.

Breihan said union lawyers are checking the law.

BEARING THE BRUNT OF COSTS

At issue is Metro’s Metro’s insistence that new employees enroll in a 401(k)-style retirement plan rather than a traditional defined benefit pension plan. Union members also are concerned about pay and the cost of medical coverage.

 “We don’t want to strike and we don’t want to hurt our riding public.” Breihan said. “But we are tired of bearing the brunt of the cost for everything that Metro screws up.”

Breihan points to the agency’s underfunding of the employee pension plan and the Clayton-to-Shrewsbury MetroLink extension (which finished a year late and came in $126 million over budget) and the ill-fated lawsuit which followed it, as examples of Metro’s fiscal failures.

He says Metro is trying to make up for its mistakes by forcing new employees into a 401(k) and withholding raises.

Breihan said Metro employees haven’t had a raise since 2008.

“Our people work hard every day and they deserve to be compensated fairly,” Breihan said. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they can’t make it to work because they don’t have money for gas and I’ve had to give them $20 out of my own pocket. That’s not right.”

SEEKING A REASONABLE WAGE

Breihan said union workers have been working under a series of contract extensions since their last contract expired in 2009. He said the average employee currently earns $18 an hour.

Out of that, workers have to pay more than $130 a week for medical benefits — for the family plan — and pension.

Local 788 is asking for a $25 a week raise for its members.

“We have to have something that everybody is able to live with,” Breihan said. “We’re not asking for a 10 or 15 percent raise. We’re asking for a raise that’s going to give us a little bit of money. None of us are going to get rich. None of us are going to be able to move out to Chesterfield and be John Nations’ neighbors.”

Nations is Metro’s president and CEO.

“It’s time for management to bargain in good faith and recognize the commitment, dedication and hard work of transit workers,” Breihan said. “We care about our passengers and we will do everything we can to avoid an interruption in their service. But we may have no choice other than to do what is necessary to get the fair contract.”

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