Waiting period begins; strike threat delays opening light-rail line

by Britt Johnsen

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 sent a letter of intent to strike Tuesday afternoon.

Once the Bureau of Mediation Services and the Metropolitan Council receive the letter, there is a 10-day cooling-off period before a strike can begin.

A strike date has not been set, but after the 10 days the union – which represents 2,150 Metro Transit workers – can go on strike at any time.

The possible strike also caused the council to delay indefinitely the April 3 opening of the Hiawatha light-rail line.

The strike would be the first since 1995, during which there was no bus service for 21 days. Wages and work conditions caused that strike.

On Tuesday, the union asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty to join them at the bargaining table. The union asked Pawlenty to come earlier in negotiations, but he declined.

Daniel Wolter, director of communications for Pawlenty’s office, said it is an option but it is too early to talk about.

“We’re hopeful that this matter can be resolved by the unions and Met Council in a manner that best serves transit riders, taxpayers and public employees,” he said.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said they will not change their final offer.

Bargaining began last May over a three-year contract that expired in July. The main concern is the rising costs of health care, which might rise as much as 25 percent by 2005, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman.

After the union rejected a vote in December, the council changed their proposal from a three-year contract to a two-year contract.

The final offer is a two-year contract that includes a wage freeze for the first year and a 1 percent increase for the following year. Ninety-four percent of the union rejected that offer Monday.

The current wage for a beginning driver is $15.26 per hour.

“When you have a family, you don’t have much (money) left,” said driver Bill Epps, who participated in the 1995 strike.

Lori Ann Vicich, marketing manager for Parking and Transportation Services, said they are devising a plan of action.

Metro Transit serves 220,000 customers per weekday, including 14,000 U-Pass customers and 1,500 Metropass customers.

First-year graduate student Ashima Nagpal said she does not have a car and the strike will affect her.

“It will be difficult for me if they go on strike,” she said. “I’ll hope for the best.”