Union’s latest offer rejected, no end to bus strike in sight

State mediator Alan Olson has refused to force parties back to the bargaining table.

Britt Johnsen

During Metro Transit’s 1995 strike, the 19th day was a happy day for many. Parties in disagreement settled on a contract and a plan to again run buses was put in place.

Today is the 21st day of the current Metro Transit strike and officials said the end is unforeseeable.

Members of the Minnesota Senate Transportation Policy and Budget Division met Tuesday at the Capitol to hear from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 and Metropolitan Council. The division will discuss its budget next week, and members said they wanted to hear from both sides of the disagreement.

The union, which represents 2,150 Metro Transit employees, and Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, are in dispute over a contract. The main disagreement is over health care.

Met Council Chairman Peter Bell said there are no new talks scheduled. He said it is up to state mediator Alan Olson to call the parties back to the bargaining table to reach an agreement.

The union presented on Monday a new offer that was “incomprehensible,” Bell said. The offer asked for a 5 percent wage increase, in contrast to the 1 percent increase Met Council proposed, and ignored other issues.

“It was literally something they pulled together in a very short period of time,” he said. “They left big holes about how retiree health-care programs would work and it’s hard for me to take it as a serious offer.”

In other confusion during Monday’s session, Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said Met Council, for the second time since May, gave the union an independent auditor’s report. The report outlines Met Council’s funding liability for retiree health-care benefits, a main issue in the strike.

In May, Met Council saw health care as one of the “key bargaining objectives,” Gibbons said.

Met Council suggested last May and again Monday that the union hire a professional to analyze and legitimize the report, Gibbons said. He said the union did not recall the report or the suggestion.

Ron Lloyd, union president, said the offer from Monday’s mediation is fair and reasonable.

“What (Bell) was really trying to say is it doesn’t agree with their offer,” Lloyd said.

Olson said he has not scheduled any new meetings and it is up to the parties to decide when they want to go back.

“The parties will decide when they want to settle,” Olson said. “I’m not doing it again.”

Each party remains equally unyielding.

Bell said the mediator can force the parties back to the table, but he sees no sense in talking until the union fully understands its offer.

“There needs to be a realization on the part of the union and until there is, I think we will not see progress,” Bell said.

Meanwhile, the union stands firm.

“We will be out here as long as it takes,” Lloyd has said.

Frank Douma, research fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said because there is such a rigid dispute, a third party must step in.

“It’s going to take some sort of outside effort to get parties negotiating,” he said. “Be that time, activism by someone else Ö (or) grassroots agitation.”

Daniel Wolter, director of communications at Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office, said the governor has no plans to get directly involved with the union and Met Council.

“Unfortunately, Gov. Pawlenty can’t ride in on a white horse with millions of dollars in hand to end the strike, as Gov. (Arne) Carlson did in 1995,” Wolter wrote in an e-mail. “We simply don’t have the money.”

It might be some time before the public sees an answer, Douma said.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a quick resolution,” he said.