- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A national union is escalating its criticism of St. Louis’ public transit system over the distribution of an Oreo cookie recipe, saying the agency is trying to create a divide between Metro bus drivers and light rail operators, most of whom are black, and the largely white maintenance workers.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 2,000 Metro workers in St. Louis and Illinois, has launched a radio and newspaper ad campaign to condemn what it calls “transparent race-baiting” after a senior Metro manager handed out copies of the recipe to bargainers during labor negotiations. The term “Oreo” is used, often derisively, to describe a person seen as black on the outside but white on the inside.

The union and Metro announced a tentative agreement late Wednesday that would retain workers’ defined benefit pension plan and provide a pay raise for the first time in six years. A vote is scheduled for next week.

Union leaders said Metro director of labor relations Charles Priscu distributed flyers with the recipe to about 10 union negotiators in July, a move that prompted chief operating officer Ray Friem to walk away from the bargaining table in protest.

“It’s so bizarre,” said Larry Hanley, the transit union’s international president. “I’ve never seen senior officials of a public agency dare to do anything like this.”

Hanley said Metro CEO John Nations had encouraged the maintenance workers to leave Local 788 and negotiate directly with the agency in a move to weaken the union’s clout.

Nations has called the shared recipe “an unfortunate incident” but one with “no malicious intent.” The Bi-State Development Agency, which operates the regional transit system, said in a statement that the recipe was “for one of the most popular cookies in America was shared in the spirit of friendship.”

“It was in no way intended to offend anyone, or to disrupt or divide the ATU Local 788 union negotiators,” spokeswoman Patti Beck said. “The Metro managers negotiating were not even aware of any racial implications about sharing the cookie recipe. As soon as they were made aware of it, apologies were immediately given.”

Priscu declined to discuss the incident, and Friem could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Hanley called the transit leader’s explanations of the recipe distribution disingenuous, and asked Nations in a late August letter to discipline Priscu. The letter cited “today’s climate of unrest,” a reference to the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white officer in Ferguson, which led to sometimes-violent protests and revived long-discussed debates about systemic racism in the community.

“We are prepared and remain committed to negotiating a fair contract, but not in an atmosphere of hate and disrespect,” Hanley said before the tentative agreement was announced.


Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier

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