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Why is the City of Madison trying to cut Metro workers out of their union?

The City’s attempt to exclude certain employees from membership is tantamount to union-busting.

Illustration: Blurry, distorted Metro buses fanned out against a purple background. 

Madison tends to think of itself as a progressive city—especially regarding social issues and working people. On September 24, 2021, in an apparent demonstration of that commitment to progressivism, the Madison Common Council voted unanimously to call upon the UW Hospitals and Clinics to restore union rights and voluntarily recognize SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. The vote included one of approval by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.

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Just three months later, however, on January 11, Greg Leifer, the Employment and Labor Relations Manager of the City of Madison, delivered a “statement and rationale” for a unit clarification for Teamsters Local 695 to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. To translate: The city wants to eliminate union membership for Metro’s payroll and transit operation departments. This change would affect four to six employees, but its ripple effects could more broadly undermine the rights of City workers. 

A bargaining unit is the legal entity that defines who a union represents. In this case, that’s Teamsters Local 695 and the workers employed by Madison Metro. Who those workers are is tricky to define. In the world of collective bargaining, some units are very narrow—only bus drivers, for example. Others are more expansive. In this case, the bargaining unit includes anyone who works for Madison Metro, except the most senior management who have authority to hire, fire, and make policy within the bounds of the contract.

Transit operations employees’ duties include supporting management in special projects, overseeing the uniform program that includes distribution and accounting functions, and similarly vague descriptions. However, their job descriptions do not include any executive decision-making duties or the right to hire and fire or impose discipline.

The City’s actions to narrow union membership raise many questions. But the foremost question is: Why now?

The categories of workers at issue have been in the bargaining unit since its inception—almost 50 years ago. The City has cited changes in technology, such as the introduction of emails and spreadsheets into the workplace, as one reason to count certain workers out of the bargaining unit. Certainly, the adoption of email and spreadsheets is neither new nor surprising to Leifer. The City alleges that the employees have access to pay and time off data, which is confidential, and this stipulation technically turns these workers into “management” figures ineligible for union membership. Of course, since this is primarily about wage data negotiated by the union, it is hardly confidential. What’s more, data processing has long been part of unionized work.

As Larry Weden, Secretary Treasurer of IBT Local 695, pointed out to me in an interview last week, the City had months to raise concerns about Metro workers’ jobs and the proper placement in the union during the latest round of contract negotiations. But City negotiators ultimately chose not to do this.

What makes this move even more bizarre is that the City did the opposite several years ago. According to sources within the American Federation Of State County And Municipal Employees union, the technological improvements the City is using to justify the removal unit from their union sound like the same ones that prompted the City to move the compensation group into the group of employees currently included in the AFSCME association, which meets and confers with the City. 

IBT Local 695 is adamantly opposed to removing Metro’s payroll and transit operations workers from the union, and immediately appealed to the WERC. It is preparing a legal case, ensuring the workers are interviewed as to their responsibilities and duties.

Aside from the fate of these people,  questions of City policy linger. Is Madison really a supporter of union rights? Would it not be more proper for Leifer to seek ways to build positive relations with the unions and employees of the City? Trying to eliminate union coverage would be in opposition to a policy encouraging it.

Union membership confers rights and protections to these employees. One of those singled out is the shop steward in that area. If removal is successful, several workers, including a representative of the union, would lose those rights and privileges. These workers would no longer be protected from capricious actions by management.

Alleging that changes in technology—especially ones that have been common in many workplaces for 20 or 30 years—suddenly trigger a change in the job function makes little sense. But it does raise big issues of precedent. Many workers in the Madison public sector handle sensitive data. Will the City view of these workers also remove them from any possibility of union membership?

Every competent observer believes that new technologies will change the way work is organized. Looking towards the future, one would think that the City of Madison would work with the IBT and public sector unions to ensure that, as the technologies change, the people involved become union members. A forward-looking policy would link improvements in technology and work organization with a concomitant expansion of rights—and certainly not their elimination.

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Members of the Madison community, as well as the Labor Working Group Of The Madison Area Chapter Of The Democratic Socialists Of America, have sent letters to City of Madison alders asking them to explain the City’s position and take a vote against this change. Full disclosure: I am one of those letter-writers, but have not heard back as of press time.

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