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Metro bus

A Metro bus in Rock Hill on April 26, 2013. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • Countering warnings by Metro’s top brass, the union representing bus and train operators have ruled out a transit strike during the bustling Fourth of July holiday.

Michael Breihan, president and business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788, said this week that operators would be on the job during the Fair St. Louis, which begins today and continues through the weekend.

“As far as I am concerned, people can go to the fair, enjoy themselves,” Breihan said.

Still, the latest round of labor strife at Metro will continue beyond the fireworks displays, concerts and funnel cakes at the annual St. Louis festival. The union representing Metro drivers, mechanics and clerical employees have authorized a strike.

Metro’s management is intent on shifting future drivers, mechanics and clerical staff from a traditional pension plan to one more akin to a 401(k). Metro President and CEO John Nations said maintaining the traditional employee pension plans posed a significant threat to the agency’s bottom line.

The agency’s contributions to the driver and mechanic bargaining group’s pensions has climbed to $7 million a year from nearly $4 million annually over the past four years, Nations said.

“These issues are not easy,” Nations said in an interview. “They’re complex.”

But the consequences of doing nothing are “not good,” Nations said, considering what has happened with other governmental agencies.

Nations said other employee groups at Metro already had transitioned to different retirement plans, including those that include a 401(k)-style package.

But Breihan said the traditional pension could be salvaged for future Metro employees. The Amalgamated Transit Union said it has proposed changes that would save the agency money and ensure the pension remains viable.

Moreover, he said, 401(k)-style plans are more prone to lost value than traditional pension plans.

Breihan said the agency had engaged in a public-relations duel leading up to the Fair St. Louis — a major civic event — and was trying to turn public opinion against the transit workers union.

The fair has historically been the agency’s busiest week of the year. Last year, MetroLink passenger boardings grew by 50 percent over normal weekday ridership to 76,000 on the Fourth of July.

He also questioned how the rumors of a work stoppage so quickly escalated from some phone calls to Metro’s customer service lines to letters being printed up and handed out to passengers and mailed to employees last Friday.

“It’s really odd,” Breihan said.

Nations countered that it was not a difficult decision to make. There were three things to consider. First, the union authorized the strike. Second, riders called in on customer-service lines saying operators had told them the strike was possible. Finally, there was a drop in voluntary overtime.

Both sides are awaiting a report from an arbitrator. Breihan said the union would have 10 days to review the report, followed by a 10-day publication period.

ATU Local 788 represents about 1,500 workers, making it the largest group within the 2,500-employee agency. The union and the agency have been in nonbinding arbitration. They have been meeting with an arbitrator for about 12 to 15 months.

Nations said he was comfortable there will be no strike this weekend, based on the union’s statements. In addition, Metro’s operations chief, Ray Friem, said drivers were signing up for overtime work again.

Metro was preparing for big crowds at the Fair St. Louis with extra service.

Friem said the agency would have extra personnel on the transit platforms. He expects large fair crowds because of the entertainment and the mild weather.

There will be additional MetroLink trains placed into service from 6 p.m. until the fireworks shows end. Extra buses will be rolled out, if needed, after the fireworks show.

“You’re going to see lines because it’s the busiest week of the year,” Nations said.

“We’re going to be doing everything that we can.”