GRAND RAPIDS — An ongoing labor dispute between The Rapid and its unionized drivers and maintenance workers has become a wedge issue for groups typically aligned in support of transit millages.
On Nov. 7, voters in six cities in Kent County will decide whether to renew The Rapid’s existing 1.47-mill levy for another 12 years. The millage accounts for about 35 percent of the organization’s operating budget.
Historically, transit millage votes in the area have been decided by razor-thin margins. The transit organization’s 2011 millage increase passed by only 136 votes. This time around, The Rapid and its backers may not have the support of some of the area’s progressive political base who often promote the impact mass transit has on working families.
Despite the unusual circumstances, Interurban Transit Partnership CEO Peter Varga says he’s confident the millage will pass and rejects the tying support for the millage to the union contract negotiations.
“For arguments to be made by folks that they can’t support us because we haven’t negotiated a contract with the union is something that is going to hurt everybody,” Varga said. “It’s going to hurt the public, it’s going to hurt businesses that need people to go to work because of transit, it’s going to hurt our employees. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Unionized drivers and mechanics with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836 (ATU) have been working without a contract for more than two years. During that time, The Rapid says it has been prohibited by state law from offering pay raises or offering greater assistance with health care costs.
To date, the ATU membership offered The Rapid significant concessions, including moving from a defined benefit to defined contribution pension plan. Thus far, the union has refused to give up daily overtime pay and seniority. The two issues remain the major sticking points holding up the passage of a new contract, although the parties are meeting again today to continue negotiations.
The contentious process has led to disruptions at several public events involving board members for The Rapid. Now in the run-up to the millage vote, some union members and other labor supporters have taken the position of “no contract, no millage,” saying that without a solid contract in place, they won’t support the millage renewal.
Brandon Dillon, a Grand Rapids resident, former state representative and the current chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, has been a vocal labor advocate in the contract talks and supports the recent “no contract, no millage” movement.
Dillon contends that he’s not opposed to the millage and hopes to see it pass, adding that his comments are from him personally, not in his capacity leading the state Democratic party.
“I want the millage to pass,” Dillon said, noting his long-time support of transit, which dates back to before his time in state government. “What concerns me is in order to give a full-throated endorsement, it’s hard for me to do that when the people that drive the buses and make the system work have been essentially getting strung along for at least two years without a contract. They have the entire power structure of the city and the region against them and are being asked to take significant concessions.”
Dillon added that he recognizes a failed millage vote could have significant negative effects on working people in the region. He said he hopes to see the two parties get back to the bargaining table to approve a contract before the vote.
Likewise, Varga is quick to highlight the direness of the situation for the organization.
“If it would hypothetically fail, which I don’t think it will, but if the millage were to fail, we have very little opportunity to recover without starting to lose some money,” Varga said. “We might not be able to pass another millage until after we’ve significantly lost revenues.”
Should voters in The Rapid’s boundaries strike down the millage, sources said the organization could likely go back to voters in May 2018. However, Varga said any delay could create issues with certifying the votes in time for the transit provider to start collecting its tax money.
BACKED BY BUSINESS
Despite the kerfuffle over the union contract negotiations, The Rapid’s proposed millage has garnered significant mainstream support.
Endorsers of the millage include the mayors of each of the Kent County cities in which The Rapid operates, as well as several Kent County commissioners, nonprofit executives, clergy members and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Josh Lunger, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Chamber, said supporting The Rapid operations remains a key issue for employers in attracting and retaining talent in the region.
“At the Chamber, we hear about talent every day from every industry and from businesses of every size,” Lunger said, noting the organization supports “anything we can do to help overcome obstacles to employment” across the city.
“We want to help fill these jobs that are posted and get more folks into the workforce,” he said. “A strong transit system is one of the pieces to that puzzle.”
While many in the business community remain steadfastly supportive of The Rapid, the ongoing labor dispute and the “no contract, no millage” movement have at times created a war of words between various progressive activists in the region.
In early October, Equity PAC, a Grand Rapids-based progressive political group focused increasing the “number of equity-minded policies, practices and officials in West Michigan,” released a statement “enthusiastically” endorsing the millage and accusing the ATU members of using the millage vote as leverage for its contract issue.
“For too long we have allowed people to prosper, benefit and make money off the backs of minorities — and people in poverty in general,” Darel Ross, an Equity PAC board member, said in a statement.
Ross is also a director at Start Garden, an entrepreneurial support organization that also operates the Grand Rapids SmartZone.
“The latest move by the transit union and its supporters to use the endorsement of the upcoming millage hostage until the ATU contract is negotiated is consistent with that unfortunate history,” Ross said. “What is inconsistent is the amount of ‘allies’ who sit silent or agree to the tactic.”
The statement spurred RiChard Jackson, the president and business agent of the ATU Local 836, to fire back.
“There are clear cut boundaries that should never be crossed when when a privileged person speaks about the needs of minorities or the impoverished,” Jackson said in a statement. “Equity PAC is basically saying that Grand Rapids’ hard working, dedicated transit workers should get used to making increasingly less in a merciless race to the bottom...
“It is not unreasonable to expect government to adequately fund public transit, or to provide livable wages, quality affordable healthcare, and retirement security for its workers.”
The ongoing rancor over the millage vote also comes as executives with The Rapid eagerly await federal funding for the proposed Laker Line, the region’s second bus rapid transit (BRT) route that would connect Grand Valley State University’s downtown Grand Rapids and Allendale campuses using larger buses traveling in dedicated lanes and operating with signal priority.
CEO Varga said the $56.1 million already appropriated for the project is expected to be released by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) “sooner rather than later,” hopefully allowing the route to be operational by May 2020.
Despite the uncertainty over the upcoming millage vote and the wait for Silver Line funds, Varga — who intends to retire at the end of his contract on Sept. 30, 2018 — said he remains extremely confident about the future of the organization.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve been working on significantly improving our transit system,” Varga said. “You have to remember where we started from and how robust we are now and where we’re headed in the future. … I’m very optimistic.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify that The Rapid’s millage makes up 35 percent of its operating budget.