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Thousands of Riders Stranded as Milwaukee County Bus Drivers Strike

Tens of thousands of people found themselves stranded on Wednesday after Milwaukee County bus drivers walked off the job. The union, which represents 750 bus drivers and mechanics, went on strike at 3 a.m. after eleventh-hour negotiations failed on Tuesday.

The strike is expected to last three days with drivers scheduled to get back behind the wheel on Saturday.

The drivers had been working without a contract since April, and several issues led to the breakdown in negotiations. Those include pay and working conditions. Amalgamated Transit Union President James Macon says drivers don’t have enough time to take breaks.

“Our drivers get an average of five minutes layover time. In that five minutes, they have to collect fares, get people on and off the bus and still get to the bathroom,” Macon says.

Macon says another big obstacle in the discussions was the transit system’s plan to hire retirees as part-time drivers. One person disappointed in the outcome is Brendan Conway, spokesman for the Milwaukee County Transit System. He says the county doesn’t have a contingency plan for getting people around.

“The backup plan is that there won’t be service. We serve about 150,000 people per day and then over the course of Summerfest we serve about 300,000 people. We need drivers to drive those buses and without drivers, there won’t be service,” Conway says.

Terry Conn boarded a bus in downtown Milwaukee Tuesday afternoon. He says he’ll be stuck at home for the next few days.

“It’s not as bad for me because I’m retired. I ride the bus almost every day. I take it to appointments, the VA Center, to get to the grocery store,” Conn says.

Conn says he hopes friends will give him rides to his appointments. Another person who uses mass transit frequently is Steve, who didn’t want to give his last name. He says he depends on the bus to get him to his job at the VA Center, west of downtown. He says he’ll have to find other ways to get around.

“I guess as a last resort would be to walk to work. I have a bike but I’ll see if it works. I’ll have to get it out of the garage. Taking a cab is expensive. That can run up, but that would be another last resort,” Steve says.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele issued a statement Tuesday night urging the union to restore transit service as soon as possible. No additional talks are scheduled between the two sides.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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