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Last week's strike could end up burning transit workers and their County Board allies while their mutual nemesis, Chris Abele, gains more power.

Like a high-voltage wire, political power is both necessary and dangerous. You need it to run the machinery of government, but it can burn you badly if you’re not careful.

Pulling the plug on bus service was the ultimate power play for Milwaukee County Transit System drivers and mechanics. But last week’s 72-hour strike could end up burning them and their County Board allies while their mutual nemesis, County Executive Chris Abele, gains more power.

Long before Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 walked out, the transit system was caught in a fiscal squeeze of stagnant revenue and falling ridership. Although Abele ended more than a decade of fare increases and service cuts, neither he nor state officials have been willing to support new revenue sources — such as a sales tax — to wean the transit system off limited property-tax dollars.

That made the strike a risky move, regardless of the merits of either side’s position in contract talks. It could have dramatized how vital the service is, leading area residents to rally behind improved transit funding. Or it could have angered thousands of people who couldn’t get to work, Summerfest or lakefront fireworks — and if it had gone on longer, might have led some to swear off buses altogether. Political and business leaders generally agree the short-term impact was rider frustration, although some hope for a long-term benefit in support for transit.

Being able to strike is a rare privilege for workers providing public service in a state where most public employee unions have lost most of their bargaining power, and weren’t allowed to strike even before the state restricted bargaining. However, Local 998 members work not for the county, but for Milwaukee Transport Services, which started as an independent not-for-profit company under contract to manage the county-owned bus system. After a County Board committee thwarted Abele’s effort to award the management contract to for-profit MV Transport, Milwaukee Transport Services became a quasi-governmental entity, with a board dominated by county officials, but still separate from county payroll and benefits. Also, federal funding rules prohibit state and local officials from reducing transit unions’ bargaining power.

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But avoiding MV management wasn’t great for Local 998, either, because the new structure gave Abele and members of his administration control of the transit board and thus a more dominant role in union contract talks. The exec already had a testy relationship with other county unions, and he was at odds with Local 998 over the MV deal, which the union feared would lead to cuts in workers’ hours and benefits. Now union leaders and Abele are blaming each other for the breakdown in negotiations with the local.

Transit union leaders often have found sympathetic ears at the County Board, to the point that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice reported a leaked union memo suggests Supervisor John Weishan encouraged the strike (although Weishan denies egging on the union). Even if he didn’t go that far, Weishan was drafting a resolution to let his colleagues go on record with their view of what provisions a fair contract should include, an unprecedented attempt to assert County Board influence over negotiations with the transit union.

Weishan says he put his resolution on hold temporarily as he and his colleagues battled a far greater power shift. In its final late-night action on the 2015-’17 state budget last week, the Republican-controlled Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee backed handing Abele much of the power still held by the already-disempowered supervisors, cutting them out of any say on county contracts and many real estate transactions. Before the Senate scaled back that provision Tuesday, some supervisors and other observers believed it could have let Abele erase the board’s defeat of many of his plans — including contracting transit management to MV.

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Even so, the long-term trend continues toward more power for Abele and less for county unions and county supervisors. In that environment, Local 998 may find that not even the power to strike gives it enough juice to win a showdown with the county’s most powerful figure.

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