“It was all due to one man’s ego,” said Robert Kelly, president of the city’s main rail union. During late November and December of 2013, Kelly was involved in a public spat with the Chicago Transit Authority over the continuation of its rail apprenticeship program. With the CTA and the union unable to reach an agreement, the rail apprenticeship program was terminated on December 31 of last year.

In 2007, the CTA began offering apprenticeship opportunities for ex-offenders, offering $9.50 an hour for full-time, year-long jobs cleaning rail cars and buses. Workers serviced platforms, rail yards, car shops, and the interiors and exteriors of rolling stock. They did the same work as the CTA’s employees, but earned less than half as much.

In March 2013, Mayor Emanuel and CTA President Forrest Claypool announced the expansion of the program. It increased the spaces for potential participants fourfold, so that two hundred bus apprentices could participate annually, although the number of rail apprenticeships remained unchanged. Since the expansion, however, the CTA has yet to fill all of the new positions. Only offenders who haven’t been convicted of a domestic, sexual, or violent crime are eligible, and participants have to be pre-screened through agencies that help ex-offenders in Chicago. They also must complete eight to ten weeks of Job Readiness Training run by the agencies, like the Cara Program, which guides ex-offenders with core training for both “personal and professional development.”

“What we’re trying to do is give people a work history,” said CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry. He believes employers are often unwilling to give ex-offenders a chance because their resumes are so scant, and that the program offers them a chance to flesh it out. According to the Cara Program’s senior manager of career services, Joe Mutuc, the CTA’s apprenticeship opportunity was a “fantastic program that was working.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local Division 308, the division which represents rail workers and of which Kelly is the president, wanted to renegotiate the contract for participants in the rail apprenticeship program so that they would receive wages comparable to other CTA employees. Instead, the CTA tried to force Kelly into renewing the contract unchanged, in a high-profile public labor dispute, instigated a few months before the contract was set to expire. Despite the pressure, Kelly refused to sign, and the program ended for sixty-five rail cleaners. Just days later, however, they were picked up by the bus union, ATU Local Division 241, and now work as bus apprentices instead.

Some feel that the situation faced by ex-offenders is so dire that they should be glad to receive training and work above minimum wage. But Kelly sees the wage as fundamentally exploitative. “There’s no doubt that this saves them money, and I’m okay with that. But these people, they work $9.50 an hour, and they get no benefits.” And as union members, the workers are necessarily subjected to $65 union dues every month, a cost that’s reasonable for someone with a yearly salary and benefits, but less so for a worker earning just above minimum wage.

Last November, the Civic Federation, a charity research organization, warned that with a $1.38 billion budget for 2014, “the CTA will face a $7-$8 million deficit mid-year, which could precipitate fare increases or service cuts.”

Kelly, who has worked in every position in the union from motorman to conductor since 1986, became president the year after the five-year contract for the ex-offender program was signed. He has offered to show a timeline of his communications with the CTA, claiming that he made it quite clear long in advance that he would not renew the contract without significant changes. He claims he had been pushing for a wage increase since 2012, and had thought that he and the CTA had already agreed to disagree on how these workers should be compensated when the public dispute about the program began.

In December, several ministers and aldermen participated in a large protest outside the union offices that was covered by major news outlets. Accusations of racism and even terrorism were thrown around; Kelly was said to be holding sixty-five workers’ lives “hostage.” Congressman Bobby Rush was quoted as saying, “We’re going to take on the union and anybody who’s sympathetic to these hard-hearted, callous union leaders who are playing Scrooge.”

Though it was meant to announce the successful continuation of the apprenticeship program with the addition of bus apprenticeships, a recent CTA press release also claims that Kelly “continually refused to consider the life-changing program.” It goes on to mention “Mr. Kelly’s inaction,” “Mr. Kelly’s refusal,” “Mr. Kelly’s decision to terminate,” and “Mr. Kelly’s commitment to end,” the program, finally calling for “Mr. Kelly to set aside his discriminatory practices” and agree to the CTA’s terms.

“There’s nothing to negotiate,” CTA Spokesperson Steve Mayberry said. “If he [Kelly] shows up at CTA headquarters, he himself can extend this program with the stroke of his pen.”

Robert Kelly maintains that he very much wanted to negotiate, but said the CTA insisted on sending outside community groups to negotiate on its behalf. “I don’t negotiate with people who don’t work for the CTA,” Kelly said adamantly. He says would have been glad to speak to Forrest Claypool, but he personally has never spoken to him about the program. “I don’t care for the man, but on behalf of my members, I’ll come to the table.”

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