ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI)-- A disagreement over race baiting is adding fuel a long standing contract dispute between Metro Transit and its union operators and mechanics. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788 has not had a new Metro contract for six years.
Pay, health benefit and pension security issues dominated talks until this July when a METRO Transit negotiator gave a recipe for Oreo cookies to the local union president at the end of a negotiating session. Union leaders say they were shocked. The term 'Oreo' is considered a slur by African Americans who see it as code for someone who is black on the outside but white on the inside.
ATU International Vice President Paul Bowen said the incident was another effort to "divide this local so we can`t get a fair contract." The union is now running a paid radio commercial on KMOX that says in part, "With the transit board actively trying to divide the multi-racial work force everyone understands this transparent ploy at race baiting. Worse, Transit CEO John Nations has done nothing to discipline its perpetrator."
John Nations, who is CEO of the Bi-State Development Agency that operates the bus and light rail system, called the recipe an "unfortunate incident" adding "certainly everyone involved knows that there was no malicious intent."
Friday the union issued a news release from its Washington D.C. office accusing Nations of defending a 'racial slur against Ferguson bus drivers.' International President Larry Hanley denied the terminology was an effort to stir up racial conflict on his part even though the recipe incident happened a month before the racial unrest in Ferguson.
Hanley said, "Nations` defense of his negotiator is indicative of a racial attitude in the region that has to be stopped." He went on to say, "This is why you have riots in the street because people are tone deaf. Mr. Nations has tried to divide union members along racial lines."
Nations denied any racial agenda. "We have been one of the greatest opportunities for the African American community to find employment and economic advancement in St. Louis," he said. More than fifty percent of the Bi-State Agency workers are African American.
In response to Hanley`s charges, Nations issued a statement saying "We wish the Union would put as much effort into negotiating in good faith as they do with creating diversions. We believe it is in the best interests of our customers and the region`s taxpayers that the Union returns to the bargaining table. Our goal is to focus on the contract and we are available to sit back down at the negotiating table and do that."
Rank and file who joined a union protest outside the Bi-State and Metro headquarters in downtown St. Louis Friday were most concerned about keeping a traditional pension plan for all members.
Metro wants new hires to be covered by a 401K but 40 year veteran bus operator Bruce Williams said, "The 401K was never meant as a retirement plan; it was a supplement to the pension plan." The union is concerned the pension fund will run dry and leave current members without their promised benefits as retirees.
Nations pointed to troubles other government pension plans are facing including the St. Louis Firefighters plan. "We believe while we still have the ability to solve the pension problem we should do so before it gets worse."
Both Nations and Local 788 president Michael Breihan said issues over pay hikes have been settled as well as most of the health insurance matters. The pension for new hires remains the primary contract stumbling block.
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