Strike settlement and health care

The end of the transit strike doesn’t change that health-care costs are out of control.

The six-week transit strike finally came to an end Friday as 72 percent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 members voted to accept the new contract. But if anything, the contract is only a temporary solution, as health-care costs will continue to rise and the accepted contract is only good until July 2005.

As a result of the buses not running, the Metropolitan Council built up savings of $7 million, Met Council Chairman Peter Bell said. Part of that money proved crucial to settling the strike. Full-time employees will get $1,100 bonuses and part-time employees will get $600 bonuses. It is too bad that this savings buildup seems to have finally prompted Gov. Tim Pawlenty to enter the fray.

The new contract eliminates health-care benefits for new retirees and includes workers hired after October 2000, by requiring 17 years of service before qualifying for retiree health care. Monthly health-care premiums also are slightly higher.

The transit workers were not unique in their decision to strike over what basically amounted to being forced to pay for rising health-care costs. Retail food workers in West Virginia and southern California went on strike last fall because of rising health-care costs. Granted, those strikes dealt with private businesses, but the premise remains the same. Health-care costs are not just a Minnesota issue; they are a national issue.

It doesn’t help that state legislators cut the Metro Transit budget by $18 million over two years with last year’s budget. This is not to mention that over the next four years, Metro Transit will suffer from a freeze on the amount of motor vehicle sales-tax money it receives.

The strike has proven two things. First, Pawlenty must put more emphasis on supporting public transit instead of seeking its demise. Second, the rise in health-care costs cannot be addressed with targeted, half-hearted proposals; it must be addressed in a broad manner. To some extent, the Met Council and the state have their hands tied by health-care costs dictated by suprastate companies, and it’s time the federal government steps in. All other solutions are merely temporary.