In the Spotlight

News & Features
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Striking bus drivers reach tentative agreement
Larger view
Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and union president Ron Lloyd (left to right), announce a tentative deal Tuesday morning to end the Metro Transit bus strike. Buses could be back in service by Saturday. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
An end to the 41-day-old Metro Transit strike is within reach after both sides emerged Tuesday morning from an overnight negotiation with a tentative contract settlement. If the agreement is ratified by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 membership, buses could be back on the street as early as Saturday. The union is not releasing details of the agreement until after leaders discuss it with the 2,200 workers who walked off the job March 4. But part of the deal hinges on using money the Metropolitan Council saved by not running buses during the strike.

St. Paul, Minn. — After numerous failed contract negotiations going back almost a year, Met Council officials and union representatives came together in a hotel room Monday night for another try. Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined the talks after negotiators felt they were making progress toward a settlement. By 5:30 a.m., the group had a contract proposal. Pawlenty says the situation was finally ripe for a solution.

"Weariness sets in, fatigue sets in, perhaps, and people are willing to take another look at some issues that perhaps they were unwilling to look at a month or two ago --on both sides," Pawlenty says.

The breakthrough comes a week after what both sides say was a productive meeting that also included Pawlenty. The governor says he doubts getting involved earlier would have ended the strike sooner.

Larger view
Image Strikers

"I think I added some value to the process and the discussion. But it really was more of finishing the job than fundamentally changing the dynamics," Pawlenty says.

Pawlenty says restoring transportation for those dependent on transit was one of the main pressures for resolving the dispute.

He says the new contract benefits from some $5 million the Met Council saved while the buses were idle the past five weeks. He denies waiting to settle the strike until enough savings built up to bolster the contract.

The impasse was over an increase in health benefit costs, combined with a 1 percent pay raise for workers over the next two years. The proposal rejected originally would have increased some members' health insurance payments more than $450 this year, and another $1,100 next year.

In addition, the plan would have trimmed the benefit that pays two-thirds of the health premiums for retired workers. Some had already qualified for the benefit under previous contracts.

Union president Ron Lloyd appeared at the press conference with Pawlenty. He's tight-lipped about the contract until it's presented to union members. He disputes the governor's perception that fatigue fostered an accord.

I think going back and working with management is a little troublesome sometimes after a strike. I think there are some feelings on both sides, and it will take some time to heal those wounds.
- Ron Lloyd, president of ATU Local 1005

"No, I don't think we settled it because we were tired. I think that was the process," Lloyd says. "It took us this long to get here."

Lloyd says the picketers will remain up until a majority of the ballots of union members favoring the settlement are counted. The next step is for the union's executive council to meet to set a vote for the full membership. The process could take up to two days. If approved, some bus service would start up Saturday. Officials predict full service would resume Monday.

While his government counterparts attempted to publicly put past disagreements behind them, Lloyd had trouble mustering words of reconciliation.

"Honest answer -- I was in the 1995 strike. I think going back and working with management is a little troublesome sometimes after a strike. I think there are some feelings on both sides and it will take some time to heal those wounds," Lloyd says. "Most management has cooperated with us as we have with them, but I think there's always going to be some hard feelings because a lot of folks, including probably myself, take some of these things personal sometimes."

Lloyd is worried some bus riders will also be slow to come around. He says the strike probably turned many of the estimated 75,000 daily riders against buses.

"Riders depend on it. They count on it. We weren't there throughout our dispute, and we will lose riders because of it -- some of them permanently. It will take some time to build it back up," says Lloyd.

Met Council officials also acknowledge the effect the strike will have on ridership -- a common measurement of transit use. They say the three-week strike in 1995 cut ridership 3.5 percent. Chairman Peter Bell says the Met Council will launch an aggressive marketing campaign to win back riders' trust.

"We're going to go revisit some of the old publications, and perhaps some of the old TV spots that we used from the '95 strike, and maybe update those a little bit. All of that has not been finalized, but in a broad sense that's what we're considering," says Bell.

Larger view
Image Needs the bus to get around

The news of a possible settlement is welcome news to bus riders. Many are commuters who want to avoid the hassle and expense of parking in downtown Minneapolis, St. Paul or the University of Minnesota. Still others are like Duane Brown who don't have a car. Brown says the strike has hampered his efforts to find a job and an apartment.

"Transportation, grocery store -- you name it, that's what I need it for. So I'm kind of glad they're trying to get it over with," Brown says. "Even going to a labor pool, you've got to catch the bus. There's no way you can go. They're not sending anybody out. You don't have a vehicle, you're out of a job."

Brown says his sister lost her job because she also couldn't get to work without the bus.

After more than a month without pay, union employees are also relieved to be talking about a settlement. Walking the picket line outside the St. Paul Metro Transit property, mechanic Carl Munson says he trusts union leaders to present members with a fair contract. But he says to win his approval, it's going to have to be better than what the Met Council presented in February.

"That's what it's going to take for me to vote yes on this contract is not go backwards, but to break even, and to know that the company is giving us a piece of the pie that we've asked for," Monson says.

In addition to resuming bus service, settling the strike will also revive efforts to debut the Light Rail Transit line between the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and downtown Minneapolis. Officials postponed the April 3 start of the Hiawatha line when the strike started.

If the union approves the contract, Metro Transit officials say the trains may begin running in another 60 days.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects