Despite talks, still no deal

The transit union presented a new offer near the end of negotiations Monday.

Britt Johnsen

Transit strike negotiations ended at 8:30 p.m. Monday and the parties reached no new agreement.

“We’re going home,” said Ron Lloyd, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 president, after seven and a half hours of negotiating.

He said the union presented a new offer to Metropolitan Council shortly before the mediation session ended. The new offer includes a change to wages and retiree health-care benefits, but not to current health care. Lloyd said he could not elaborate on what the changes were.

Lloyd said there are no new talks scheduled yet, he said. The strike is in its 20th day.

But, the union – which represents 2,150 Metro Transit employees – is ready to negotiate at Met Council’s will, Lloyd said.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said as of 10 p.m. Monday that Met Council had a chance to review the union’s new offer. He said both the mediation session and the new offer showed signs the union does not understand Met Council’s original offer. Gibbons called the session “a step backward” in the situation.

“It’s very disappointing,” he said.

Met Council Chairman Peter Bell was unavailable for comment.

Bell has said the agency has no more money to offer. He said there are few options in ending the strike.

Bell said one option would be to get the Legislature to give the Met Council more money.

Transit authorities and others will hold a press conference today to discuss a new bill that asks Gov. Tim Pawlenty to give more money to transit. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, are introducing the bill.

“I think it has virtually no chance of success in either the House or the Senate,” Bell said. “Everybody wants more money.”

The Legislature could give money to the “University or nursing-home care Ö or the benefits that the union currently enjoys,” he said.

Another way to end the strike, Bell said, is to give the union the contract it originally wanted, which he has said costs $22 million more than Met Council’s offer.

With that would come a 10 percent service reduction or a 42 cent increase in fares, he said. Bell said he is unwilling to do that.

Meanwhile, the union remains confident they deserve a fair contract.

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

The Met Council oversees Metro Transit. The groups are disputing a contract involving wage and health-care issues, health care being the “sticking point,” Bell said.

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

Met Council’s 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. The current wage for a beginning driver is $15.26 per hour.

Gibbons has said there are different health-care plans to choose from. Under one plan, health-care costs would rise as much as 25 percent in 2005.

Another plan includes a cost reduction from the employees’ current contract. In this plan, employee premiums reduce by $40. Also, a $10 copay for doctor visits and a $12 copay for prescriptions would be established.

Another disputed health-care issue is retiree health-care benefits. Under the Met Council’s proposal, retiree benefits for those hired after 2000 would start at age 55, after 17 years of service. New hires would not receive any benefits.

Ninety-four percent of the union rejected the Met Council’s offer in February.

Some said it will take more than negotiating to end this strike.

Frank Douma, research fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said because traffic flow and parking have been tolerable, public voice has not stepped in.

“I think both sides – after the strike started – sort of stepped back and saw who would gain the upper hand,” he said. “There really has been nothing to change it at this point.”

Gibbons said the last bus strike in 1995 lasted 21 days and ended when then-Gov. Arne Carlson stepped in and made a decision for the parties.

As the bus strike continues, different problems and solutions will present themselves, Douma said.

“Time will tell,” he said.