LRT work goes on as strike continues

Britt Johnsen

When Joe Marie, assistant general manager for rail operations, goes to work on light rail transit each day, work is no more stressful for him than before the bus strike began, he said.

When 94 percent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 members voted against Metropolitan Council’s final contract offer in February, Met Council indefinitely delayed the opening of light rail transit. The Hiawatha light rail line was originally set to open Saturday.

Because of the strike, now in its 30th day, light rail lost 30 of its 85 workers. With an indefinite delay on the opening and a contractual commitment to the federal government for a Dec. 31 opening, the rest of the team continues to work on the line.

But Marie said the kind of work done would be different if there was no strike.

“We were really geared up and getting the organization ready to open the system was a challenge,” he said. “You start taking a look at where you’re at and refocus and reprioritize.”

The biggest challenge with the project involved assessing priorities, Marie said. He said because the project’s focus has changed, there is a greater emphasis on fine-tuning and less on deadline preparation.

“The stress now is trying to plan for when (workers) do come back and to be ready as soon as possible,” Marie said.

Daytime work includes running the trains along the tracks at all locations from Fort Snelling to Minneapolis’ warehouse district. When trains are not running, Marie said, maintenance and mechanical work takes place, usually from around 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Those jobs involve work union members would be doing, he said. Metro Transit supervisors now do much of that work. Supervisors are not union members, Marie said.

The other rail workers are from Bombardier Transportation, a Canada-based company that manufactures the trains. Until they approve the safety of the trains, Marie said, the trains are not Metro Transit property.

Marie said once the trains are Metro Transit property, they cannot be run if its workers are on strike. Only union workers can work on Metro Transit’s trains, Marie said.

One train has been made Metro Transit property. Marie said next week, 14 trains will become Metro Transit property and will sit idle in a garage adjacent to Franklin Avenue West near the light rail station.

Marie said he is confident the team will get the work done on time, but depending on how long the strike lasts, prospects about the December deadline are somewhat disconcerting.

“Hopefully, we open in December,” he said.

Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman, said when light rail opens depends on how many employees return to the company.

“Assuming all hands return,” Gibbons said, it will take a minimum of eight weeks to retrain staff and run required, pre-line simulation.

Union members said they think Met Council was not ready to open the rail on time, and used the strike as an excuse not to open the line.

Some union members said even though they believe light rail was not ready, they are glad work continues.

“They wouldn’t have been ready,” said Curtis Poppen, a mechanical worker on strike. “This has been a godsend for Bombardier because it’s gotten their trains ready to roll.”

Meanwhile, other union members said work or no work, they resent Met Council for putting the blame on them.

“Why are they shifting the blame on us?” said Jacqueline McDuffie, a maintenance worker who was a month into her training for light rail transit. “They’re still working. We’re not stopping them.”