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St. Louis Metro Transit: Union Votes To Authorize Strike Amid Contract Dispute

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Are St. Louis Metro commuters going to have to find a different way to get around? Members of the Local 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union -- which represents 1,200 bus operators, MetroLink drivers, mechanics and clerical workers -- overwhelmingly voted this week to authorize a strike amid increasingly intense contract negotiations with the agency.

"We really don't want to strike and hurt the public," Mike Breihan, the president and business agent of Local 788, tells Daily RFT. "We are willing to sit down at the table...so we can keep buses and trains running."

According to the union, the mediation got so intense that management "stormed out" of the negotiations. But the Metro president disputes this fact -- and argues that if the union actually went through with a strike, it would be against the law.

The current contract expired in 2009, and workers have agreed to two extensions the last of which ended in January of 2011. According to the union, Metro workers' wages have stagnated while pension and health-care costs have risen over that time.

Now, the union says it is refusing to accept additional concessions in its contract -- which allegedly prompted the Metro management to walk out on negotiations. (Workers, the union says, have already made "benefit concessions to save the system money," and also helped pass a sales tax in 2010 to fund the continued operation and expansion of the transit system,)

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The latest fight centers on Metro's proposal to have new employees sign up for a retirement plan instead of the former pension model.

With a 93 percent vote to authorize a strike locally on Tuesday, the union could exercise that option if it got permission from the international union -- as a last option, Breihan says.

He says the union now has to wait for a response from a mediator, which will come at the end of the month. If that agreement is not satisfactory and the two sides can't hammer out a solution, then a strike could occur in July.

"If they refuse to come back to the table, it's possible," he says, reiterating, "they walked away."

He emphasizes that he doesn't want to burden Metro riders.

"These are people who we see every day of the week. We know them. We know their families," he says. "We don't want to hurt anyone, but we want to make sure we don't get hurt and want to make sure our families are taken care of."

John Nations, Bi-State Development Agency/Metro president and CEO, tells Daily RFT that the claims management walked out are untrue.

"We have never walked away from any negotiation at any time. We've never refused to talk to them," he says. "The truth is, it is the union which has been completely intransigent."

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via atu.org

He argues that the union refuses to even discuss pension reforms, which he says are necessary given the financial realities of the agency.

"We have a lot of challenges facing our company, which need to be addressed," he says. "They are unwilling to talk through the most important issues."

Nations further argues, "The strike would be illegal. We are a little puzzled by the fact that they want to hold a press conference to announce their intention to engage in illegal activity."

He adds, "It would be extremely disruptive to our region.... I frankly would hope none of our employees would ever take action that disadvantages the riding public."

Nations argues that the union has, in previous discussions, agreed to the pension reforms it is now refusing to discuss. He also says that he has a standing offer with the union to meet with any interested members at any time, but has not been invited to do so. In response, Breihan tells us there's a difference between chatting casually and negotiating a contract. He says he wants the management's attorneys back at the table.

Here's a written statement from Nations, followed by the full news release from the union.

The Union is well aware that a strike is illegal in Missouri. Many people worked very hard to pass Proposition A in St. Louis County in 2010, but voters did not vote for giving into unreasonable demands by the Union. In fact, the Union has already agreed to a contract for the Call-A-Ride operators that includes the pension reforms under discussion in this negotiation and the Union has completely failed to explain its change of position in this negotiation from what it agreed to six months ago in the Call-A-Ride negotiations. We hope they will, as all the rest of our employees have, accept the financial realities which we must address in the 21st century and not cling to a pension model from the 1950's. We have never refused to talk to the Union. We have never walked out of talks. We remain hopeful that they will return to the table in good faith ready to seriously discuss the issues which confront our company. We would hope that no Metro employee would disadvantage the thousands of riders who depend on us every day. We will provide transit service to the best of our ability if a such a work action would occur.

Here's the Union's news release:

Metro Transit Workers Charge Bad Faith Bargaining, Authorize Strike Management demands concessions, walks out of mediation

St. Louis, MO - Some St. Louis area commuters might have to find a new way to get to work soon if Metro Transit refuses to resume mediated negotiations with its employees. Today Metro Transit workers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike after Metro management walked away from mediation last week.

The vote of members of Local 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) puts transit workers on a collision course with the management charging bad faith bargaining and sets the stage for a possible strike. Local 788 represents 1,200 Metro bus operators, MetroLink drivers, mechanics and clerical workers.

"We don't want to strike, and we don't want to abandon the people of St. Louis who rely on us to get to work, school, and other daily tasks," asserted Local 788 President Mike Breihan. "We want our riders to know that we stand ready to negotiate a fair contract, but that we cannot accept a contract that essentially sets us back to where we were decades ago."

Last Friday, Metro management stormed out of mediated negotiations after the union refused to accept additional concessions in its contract. Workers had already made benefit concessions to save the system money and had proposed even more.

Metro transit workers also worked hard to get Proposition A passed in 2010 to secure a half-cent sales tax increase designated to fund the continued operation and expansion of our transit system. Management promised a fair contract for Metro workers, but now seems intent on forcing its workers back even further.

"We have gone the extra mile - working without a new contact for almost four years now," Breihan continued. "They refuse to recognize the sacrifices their workers have already made to keep our buses and light rail trains operating safely and efficiently. It's simply wrong to demand more."

"This is what wrong with America today -- public agencies attacking people who work every day and trying to drive them into poverty now and when they are in their old age," said ATU International President Larry Hanley. "We are outraged and it is time to stop these attacks on working families."

The current contract expired on June 30, 2009, and the workers agreed to two extensions - the last of which ended on January 21, 2011. Over that same period Metro workers' wages have stagnated while health care and pension costs have increased.

"It's time for management to bargain in good faith and recognize the commitment, dedication, and hard work of transit workers," Breihan continued. "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."

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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1 comments
Allison Benoit
Allison Benoit

As always with these kind of disputes, it's a he said/he said situation. The union says one thing, the employer says another. Who do you choose to believe? And who do you choose to blame when low income people lose their jobs because they can't find another way to work?

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