Metro Transit employees’ strike unlikely

Britt Johnsen

Although the threat of a bus strike seemed near, Metro Transit and union officials have decided to pursue arbitration to resolve their contract negotiations.

While the groups have not chosen an arbitrator, the decision indicates a strike is unlikely.

In May, Metro Transit officials and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, which represents 2,100 bus operators, mechanics and clerical workers, began bargaining over a three-year contract. The workers’ contract expired in July, union officials said.

The groups did not reach a decision by December, when – after seven meetings with a mediator – the union rejected Metro Transit’s final offer.

Metro Transit and the union are now seeking an arbitrator, a third party who makes the final decision after each side presents its argument.

Once the arbitrator is chosen, the person must make a decision 30 days after both sides present their cases.

Arbitration could take months, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman.

Metro Transit’s three-year contract offer includes a wage freeze for the first year and a 1 percent increase for the next two years.

The contract also includes an increase in health-care premiums by as much as 25 percent by 2005. These premiums are the biggest concern, Gibbons said.

Currently, beginning Metro Transit drivers earn $15.26 per hour. After five or more years, their wages increase to $21.80 per hour.

Wage freezes will make up for a lack of money from the Legislature. Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said there is no prospect for additional money.

Because of the state budget cut last year, Metro Transit eliminated 192 positions and increased bus fares by 10 cents.

Although transit union President Ronald Lloyd would not comment on negotiations, bus driver Andrew Patrick said the union is prepared to take action if necessary.

“If push comes to shove there will be a strike,” said Patrick, who participated in the 21-day union strike against Metro Transit in 1995.

During that strike, no transit services were available to commuters.

As an alternative, Metro Transit tried to increase the number of carpools and van pools. It also worked with businesses to stagger work hours and encouraged employers to let people work from home.

Bill Stahlmann, transit manager for Parking and Transportation Services, said if a strike occurred the University would open parking spaces on the Minneapolis and

St. Paul campuses and reduce carpool parking rates from their $1.75 average. There are no plans to refund U-Passes, he said.

An estimated 12,000 University students will buy a U-Pass this semester. Students are included in the 250,000 customers served by Metro Transit each day.

If the union does decide to strike, there will be a 10-day cooling-off period, Gibbons said.

“It’s not like the union will come together today and strike tomorrow,” he said.

Alan Olson, mediator for the Bureau of Mediation Services, agreed that a strike is unlikely.

But if one occurs, it could leave many out in the cold, including University sophomore George Mburu, who is dependent on Metro Transit to get to his classes.

“If (a strike) is the only way for (the union) to voice their opinion, then that’s good,” said Mburu, while waiting for a bus. “But it’s obviously not a good thing for (riders).”