Buses sit still while strike debate rolls on

Britt Johnsen

Jenny Caesar said she is outraged about the transit strike.

“The (union doesn’t) realize the horrible mess that they are making,” Caesar said. “I’m so angry I don’t believe that the drivers should get their jobs back.”

The bus strike, which is now more than a month old, is sitting idle. But more students and community members are getting involved to get the buses running again.

“This strike has gone on way too long,” Caesar said. “I thought maybe it’d be like a week or two, but now it’s a month and I think it’s a little out of hand.”

Caesar, who is supposed to graduate in May, said she might not be able to graduate on time because of inadequate transportation to her classes.

The psychology student said she is “60 percent sure” she will graduate. She said her attendance is imperative, but some days it is impossible to get to campus from her St. Louis Park, Minn., home.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I almost had a nervous breakdown last week.”

Caesar said she shares a car with her boyfriend, but he needs it often. On days he cannot give her rides or she cannot use the car, she said she’s left stranded.

Caesar is one of many students who said the bus strike affects them. At a rally Tuesday, hundreds of students and community officials gathered to express their need for an end to the strike.

“Students don’t have a set schedule,” said doctoral student Meghan Warren. “Very few people have the same schedule. It’s putting a horrible burden on students and their education if they can’t come to class.”

Doctoral student Mira Grice agreed and said she plans to move when she is done with school.

“This isn’t a real city if they don’t have mass transit,” she said.

Lori Ann Vicich, marketing manager for the University’s Parking and Transportation Services, said that while many people are still suffering, it does not appear the University is as badly affected as anticipated.

“It’s been calm, but a sad calm,” Vicich said. “Things are running smoothly, but it doesn’t stop the fact that our customers are struggling to get around.”

Outside involvement

During and after the rally, students expressed their concern for getting outside involvement.

First-year General College student Kevin Jack said he hopes movement comes soon.

“(The strike) sucks. I would hope (Gov. Tim) Pawlenty and (Metropolitan Council Chairman and University Regent Peter) Bell get off their butts and do something,” said Jack, who commutes from St. Paul. “It’s gotten very old very fast.”

Students are not the only ones upset with the strike. University clerical worker Susan Lange said she thinks it is up to University President Bob Bruininks to help settle the strike.

After Tuesday’s rally, a group of about 40 students and other union supporters marched to Bruininks’ office to deliver a

letter asking him to help settle the strike.

“He’s an influential guy,” law student Nick Woomer said.

Rachel Hartreeve, Bruininks’ receptionist, said he realizes the bus strike hurts students but Bruininks cannot dictate any duties outside of the Board of Regents.

Bell said that although he hears public concern, he will not budge.

“Obviously that’s something we consider and we’re concerned about, but I can’t allow that to cause me to make a decision or concessions I think are unwise,” Bell said.

He said he does not see his position as a regent as a conflict of interest with his status at the Met Council, and his stance on the transit strike remains firm.

“When I said this was our last, best and final offer, I meant this was our last, best and final offer,” Bell has said.

Meanwhile, although union members said they are tired, they said they will do what it takes to get a fair contract.

“We got to do what we got to do,” said Georgia Russel, who has been a driver for 14 years. “I want to work. I am ready to go back. We just want to be able to take care of our families.”

Because neither party is budging, officials said it is time to involve a louder public voice.

On Monday, the union called Roger Moe, former Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator, to participate in negotiations.

“I’m not intervening,” he said. “The only way I’ll get involved is if both sides agree to me.”

Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman, said they do not plan to ask Moe for his involvement.

“We believe that in order to reach a settlement it’s more important to consider the issues on the table rather than the people sitting around it,” Gibbons said.

Daniel Wolter, communications director at Pawlenty’s office, said Pawlenty will not get involved the way former Gov. Arne Carlson did during the last bus strike in 1995.

“Gov. Carlson’s intervention in 1995 was to basically bring millions of dollars to the table to meet the union part of the way on their demands,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to do that.”

Public voice

Today students will call Pawlenty’s office continuously to let them know the strike has to end, event organizers said.

There will be a rally at the State Capitol on Saturday, where many students and other union supporters plan to voice their opinion.

Meanwhile, Park Avenue United Methodist Church will hold a rally every Sunday until the end of the strike, its officials said. They are also trying to get everyone on the freeways to slow down to 40 miles per hour.

“There’s not much pressure on the governor or transit workers to resolve this,” said Mark Horst, senior pastor at the church. “We’re looking for a way to raise the visibility of the impact on the strike throughout the metro area.”

What is next

The Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 have not scheduled any new talks. The main dispute is health-care issues.

As of April 1, union members stopped receiving health-care benefits, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman. He said if employees want health care, they must now pay their own premiums.

John Budd, human resources professor at the Carlson School of Management, said health care is the latest milestone in the strike.

“I think there’s a chance we might see movement quickly,” Budd said. “(It) puts more pressure on the striking workers.”

“After that,” he said, “it’s anyone’s guess.”

Budd said strikes usually last about two weeks. He said because this strike is so long and because of the stubborn politics of it, there will have to be bold movement to create change.

“Met Council is going to have to give the union some basis to going back to the membership,” Budd said. “Something that will say, ‘We’ve won something, let’s go back to work.’ “