DOWNTOWN — A program that helps ex-felons start anew is in the middle of a tug-of-war between the CTA and unions.
The Second Chance program has helped hundreds of people released from prison find work at the CTA and develop the skills they need to start a career since it launched in 2007. That program is at risk, though, because the CTA and two unions it works with can't agree on a contract, CTA representatives said.
Members of the Second Chance program, called "apprentices," have to join and pay dues for the unions that work with the CTA, Amalgamated Transit Unions 308 and 241. The CTA and those unions have to reach an agreement for the Second Chance employees before Dec. 31 to keep the program going.
The CTA said it's tried to come to an agreement with the unions so it could continue the program — but now the unions are using the program to gain "leverage" in contract negotiations for employees who aren't part of Second Chance.
"It's been interesting because ... the impression I've gotten is the union is trying to use the Second Chance program to leverage other issues in the collective bargaining process," said CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. "Basically, anything that has to do with the program itself, I have agreed to either make the adjustments or to negotiate with them over what would be an acceptable solution to do that.
"The items that we are not in agreement about are items that have absolutely nothing to do with the Second Chance program itself."
But the unions said the CTA's claims are "at best misleading" in a statement released Thursday night. Second Chance's apprentices work for less than regularly employed counterparts while the CTA profits and receives grants from the program, the unions said.
The apprentices are paid $10.50 per hour while their regular-class counterparts are paid up to $27 per hour, the unions claimed. The unions are also pushing for the majority of the CTA workforce to be paid the prevailing wage paid to "mostly white trades bargaining units."
"The union demands that the apprentices be paid a living wage of $15 an hour and that all employees at the CTA have fair wages and benefits," the unions said in the statement. "When will this abuse and discrimination stop?"
If the union and the CTA cannot come to an agreement by end of the year, the program will be put on hiatus until a deal is made.
That's happened at least once before: Local 308 and the CTA couldn't immediately make a deal in 2014, so Second Chance employees couldn't work on the rails for several weeks, said CTA spokesman Brian Steele. The employees still were able to work on the buses until the CTA and 308 made a deal.
This time, though, both unions haven't come to an agreement with the CTA, and Second Chance's apprentices would be entirely out of work through the program.
"There's no reason in my mind that we shouldn't be able to reach an agreement on the continuation of that program so we can continue to allow the employees — who, I want to reiterate, they're union members — allow them to continue to remain employed," Carter said.
Protests were held urging the CTA and union leaders to save the program the last time it was temporarily shut down.
The program provides hundreds of jobs to apprentices each year, Steele said. The apprentices work in the program for up to a year, and some are hired permanently. They also receive training and education through a partnership with City Colleges of Chicago.
Some have even become managers at the CTA, Steele said, including one who went from being a felon to being a manager making six figures.
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