Ninety-four percent of Metro Transit drivers, mechanics, cleaners and customer service agents voted on September 10 and 11 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike. The authorization to call a strike comes as their union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, negotiates a new three-year contract with Metro Transit to replace one that expired at the end of July.
Over the past year, members have been rallying for a wage increase equivalent to the cost of living, plus one percent. Metro Transit reportedly countered with an offer that entails a three percent raise in the first year, plus a two percent raise in each of the following two years.
“The 94 percent [in support of a strike] really represented the anger about the [agency’s] first wage proposal,” said union president Ryan Timlin. Members who last week spoke with the MSR say they were hesitant to strike but support the cost-of-living wage increases.
The ATU Local 1005 represents thousands of Metro Transit’s frontline staff, but the union also includes customer service agents who field complaints from riders, help passengers navigate the region’s transit system, as well as help riders reload their Go-To cards at the agency’s downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul service centers. They also represent the agency’s front desk receptionist.
It appears that the agency’s wage offer might match or be better than what the union is asking for. The Federal Reserve of Minneapolis says the inflation rate in the Twin Cities is one of the lowest anywhere in the country, hovering between 1 and 2 percent this year. The Congressional Budget Office expects inflation to slow in the next two years, but various factors can influence the cost-of-living.
The union believes tying wages to the cost of living plus one percent provides a good safety net to safeguard their workers from future changes in the economy. “The inconsistencies in the economy, it [cost-of-living increase] would give us a safety net if we have another spike in inflation. But that’s also why we’re asking for the percentage on top of it,” said Timlin.
Other issues up for negotiation include worker safety, which remains top of mind for ATU members, particularly for their drivers. The ATU local says their drivers and cleaners have faced assaults and muggings as well as riders who insist on smoking and using drugs onboard. Local ATU members want the agency to purchase vehicles that their drivers can drive to get between their home garages and places where they start and finish their bus routes.
The union is also asking Metro Transit to commission a study on how riders doing drugs can affect other riders on board, including drivers. A similar study was completed in Washington state earlier this month, where four transit agencies commissioned a study from the University of Washington about the presence of drugs on their transit vehicles. Although they found the presence of fentanyl and meth onboard, researchers say they are confident that exposure to the levels of drugs found do not pose a health risk.
The study recommended improved filtration to MERV-13 standards, which filter out 85 percent of pollutants, chemicals, and viruses smaller than one micron. Although Metro Transit reportedly improved filtration on its light rail trains during the pandemic, it is unclear what filters they use onboard each train car. It is also unclear what filters the agency uses on its buses as they did not respond at press time. Nevertheless, the union says their drivers are still getting sick.
“Some of what we’ve heard from the research in Washington [state] is that it’s not so much the chemical that gives you the high. [Our drivers are] getting reactions to the other chemicals that are in the drugs,” said Timlin.
Other efforts the agency is taking to address transit safety include hiring transit ambassadors to enforce fare payment on its rapid transit bus and light rail routes, as well as helping riders navigate the system. These ambassadors will be represented by ATU Local 1005. Representatives from the agency previously said they don’t plan to hire ambassadors until drivers ratify their contract.
They’re also looking to reduce the number of split-shifts, where members work several hours and take a long, unpaid break in between. Although their contract requires 55 percent of work to be straight-through shifts, Metro Transit is offering 85 percent of weekday shifts as straight-through work with the service changes it made in August. Meanwhile, the Duluth Transit Authority eliminated all split-shift work when they completely restructured the Duluth transit network in late August.
As negotiations continue, it is important to note that ATU members won’t strike yet. Although ATU Local 1005 members voted to authorize a strike, the bargaining committee hasn’t yet called for a strike. It does not appear a strike will happen anytime soon as union officials say they have not reached an impasse. ATU and the agency have two contract-negotiation meetings scheduled in the coming weeks—one on September 22, the other on October 7.
Nonetheless, in order for drivers to strike, the bargaining committee must issue a 10-day notice, at which point there is a “cooling-off” period. If ATU and Metro Transit can’t reach an agreement during that period while working with a mediator, members will then go on strike.
A strike would affect all routes directly operated by Metro Transit, including all Maple Grove express routes. Metro Transit does not yet have any contingency plans in place in case the workers do go on strike, but hopes they reach an agreement to avert a strike.
“Our employees are integral to serving those who rely on transit, and we look forward to reaching an agreement,” said Met Council spokesperson Terri Dresen.
It is unclear if a potential strike would affect routes that Metro Transit does not directly operate, such as Routes 30, 67, 87, 538 and 540. Those routes, as well as routes for Plymouth Metrolink and Southwest Transit, are operated by contractors, some of whom are represented by Teamsters Local 120. At press time, Local 120 did not respond to inquiries about how they would proceed should ATU-represented drivers call a strike.