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Pawlenty gets involved in bus strike talks
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Met Council chairman Peter Bell, left, met with Gov. Tim Pawlenty (shown in a March 4 photo) and Ron Lloyd, head of the striking Metro Transit bus drivers union, Wednesday night. The three talked for several hours but made little progress on resolving the strike. (MPR file photo)
Leaders from the transit union and the Metropolitan Council came away from a secret meeting with the governor Wednesday saying they made progress toward resolving the five-week old transit strike. But both sides admit the main areas of contention remain the same. They've agreed to meet again Monday.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Gov. Tim Pawlenty waded into the details of the transit union's contract during the seven-hour meeting with union President Ron Lloyd and Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell. Pawlenty called the meeting after Lloyd sent a letter requesting his involvement. Lloyd says it was the most productive meeting since before the strike started.

"I think he got us kick-started, if that's the right word. We seemed to be at a stalemate the last few times we got together. Even if we were there five or six hours we didn't seem to get a lot accomplished," says Lloyd. "And last night we did go over all the issues. Whether we got agreement on all the issues is not the issue. We just continued to talk and kept moving on."

The face-to-face negotiation did not produce a settlement, but Lloyd says Pawlenty's presence allowed a forum for each side to air concerns.

I think he got us kick-started, if that's the right word. We seemed to be at a stalemate the last few times we got together. ... Whether we got agreement on all the issues is not the issue. We just continued to talk and kept moving on.
- Ron Lloyd, Transit workers union chief

"It's the only way we're going to get a finished product. If we don't do that, we're going to be out a long time. And that's why I think he needs to stay involved in it, to keep things moving forward," Lloyd says.

The Met Council's Peter Bell says the negotiation was frank and cordial. He agrees the session with governor was productive.

"We understand that was important to them, and it was one of the reasons the governor felt he needed to make every effort to see if a breakthrough was possible," Bell says.

After the session, the disagreement over higher health benefit costs for workers remains. Bell says there's no silver bullet.

"Other elected officials, and to some extent, the press have insinuated that if we would just look at other approaches and restructure the offerings, that there might be savings that could satisfy the union. The truth of the matter is I think there is very little prospect for that. The facts are, unfortunately, what the facts are," Bell says.

Bell maintains there's only three options for resolving the strike, now entering its sixth week.

"Raise fares or cut service -- that's one way, which I'm very hesitant to do. The second is we could get more resources from the Legislature. I think the prospects for that are nil. Or the union could accept modest curtailments of what they acknowledge is a very, very generous benefit package," says Bell.

The union's Ron Lloyd insists the Met Council can find the money needed to complete what he calls a fair contract.

The meeting comes following two failed legislative actions related to the strike. One would have had the union work under the old contract. Another would have converted the bus system back into private company. Lloyd says he's encouraged that was voted down by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

"That's how the public sector here in the metropolitan area ended up with transit in the first place, because the private people couldn't make it work," Lloyd says.

Lloyd says the 2,200 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 remain committed to hold out for a better contract.

"My members are doing fine. They're out there doing their responsibility. Ninety-four percent of the folks voted to go out, and they're out there doing what they need to," says Lloyd.

The two sides scheduled another session Monday with a state mediator. It was set up before this week's meeting with the governor.

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