by Mark Connor
The bus drivers and mechanics for the Metropolitan Transit
Service have been on strike for more than two weeks now. The last time they
were on strike was in 1995. Then the fight was over working conditions more
than pay, and although that dispute was settled with the contract that just
expired, the agreement was a compromise, and at that time some employees could
already foresee the potential for conflict.
Although the Metropolitan Council did offer a small annual
pay raise to employees in the proposed contract, it’s not seen as a generous
offer and the walkout is over an issue that is common in today’s labor
negotiations: healthcare benefits. As both sides dig in for a fight that some
say will last as long as two months, people are affected throughout the metropolitan
area, but striking employees are hurting as much as anyone.
“Obviously it affects the members out there losing paychecks,”
says Michelle Sommers, Vice President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local
1005. “But they’re standing in solidarity, they’re standing
united, we got burning barrels keeping people warm, and they’re ready
to be out there as long as it takes.”
The local union has a strike
fund that totals just over $200,000, Sommers says, “and with 2,100 members,
that doesn’t go very far, so the donations that people give us will help
us give our members more.” The top level of pay for the most senior drivers
currently is $21.80 an hour, and for those used to living off of that wage or
less added up over a week’s worth of work, a long strike can be very damaging.
It also hurts a public that may grow less understanding as time goes by, a factor
which the Metropolitan Council may rely on as negotiations drag on. Sommers
and drivers report that the public has been very understanding so far, though,
and that most people passing the picket lines offer positive, encouraging displays
“It’s bad for us and it’s bad for the people
who depend on the bus,” says Melodie Zehm, a driver for nearly 11 years.
Still, she’s determined to get a better contract along with her colleagues,
saying she believes the current offer is just not enough. On offer is a 1 percent
pay raise for two years, which means the raise applies at the end of the second
year in a two-year cycle. That is well and good, but of particular concern is
the number of years of service necessary to be eligible for retirement health
benefits, as expressed in the proposed contract. For example, there will be
no retirement health care for anyone who has been employed less than 17 years.
The current levels of eligibility for retirement health care are 10 and 15 years,
depending on when an individual was hired. Regardless of the years of employment
required for eligibility for the benefit, however, it can’t be collected
on unless the individual is retirement age.
Zehm is upset with the offered contract. “I feel I’ve
already earned my retirement health benefits,” Zehm says, “and they
want to take that away from me. That means I’d have to be assured to work
another six and a half years to earn that benefit, and you don’t know
what’s going to happen to you in that time. Things happen. You can become
ill, or you can get in an accident and become disabled. Six and a half years
is a long time.”
Another important point of the retirement health care benefit
is that it does not cover the full cost of health care. It’s split, with
the company paying two thirds and the individual paying one third. “The
union has been taking less of a percentage of raises in order to keep the retirement
health benefits, because they [the Metropolitan Council] have been trying to
get rid of them for a long time. Now they want to just yank them away from us.”
driver who voted against the ’95 contract and wished to remain anonymous,
explained how eligibility for retirement health care and the full pension is
determined. The driver also mentioned the concessions made by labor over work
conditions in the last contract. The last contract allowed for new hires to
qualify for shared health care costs after retirement (the company paying two
thirds and the retiree paying one third) after 15 years of service, or 10 years
for those hired before the contract. However, no one can retire and get those
benefits without reaching retirement age. Also, in order to qualify for full
pension, the years of service added to an employee’s age must equal 90.
One of the biggest issues in 1995 was the number of hours a
driver could be worked in a day. Management wanted to change from working drivers
on 8 hour shifts over a period of 10 hours to 9 to 10 hour shifts. The conditions
were changed so that now a driver can be worked up to 10 hours within a period
of 13 hours in a day. For example, if a driver works from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.,
the company can require a return at 1 p.m. to work till 6 p.m.
With the fight getting tougher each day, the union knows what
is at stake and how hard it is on all the employees. In an economy where nothing
seems to get cheaper, especially health care, the drivers and mechanics at the
Metropolitan Transit Service are fighting to keep one more segment of labor
from getting cheaper as the price of living goes up. “We don’t even
want to be out on strike,” Sommers says. “But we’re prepared
to do what we have to do.”
What can you do to help the bus drivers?
from Ty Moore, Member, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005.
1 Support the Food Bank Formed for Striking Transit Workers
The labor community opened a food bank today to give support
to striking Transit workers. Donations are expected from affiliated unions,
community members, and businesses looking to ease any hardship faced by strikers.
The food bank is housed in the United Labor Centre on Central
Ave. and University Ave. in Minneapolis. Donations can be dropped off
from 8:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday in Suites 524 or 542.
All striking workers are welcome to come in and pick up free
For more information, contact Mary Ystesund at 612-379-8133
or Kyle Makarios at 612-379-4206.
2 Call a politician and apply some pressure
Call Governor Tim Pawlenty’s comment line at 651-296-3391
and let him know that you support the Transit Workers and their efforts to keep
their healthcare costs down. Remember that the contracts that state and local
workers receive set the tone for the wages and benefits that all of us receive.
Contact Peter Bell, Metropolitan Council chair, and let him
know the same. His number is 651-602-1453.
3 Attend a rally in support of Transit Workers.
Next Thursday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a major transit strike
solidarity rally at the State Capitol building in St. Paul, to bring this fight
to Tim Pawlenty’s doorstep. Please spread the word. We will be organizing
a car-pool from Dinkytown for anyone who needs help getting to the rally. Meet
at 1:00 p.m. sharp in the parking lot at corner of 15th Ave, and 5th St, behind
4 Help Mobilize for the Rally!
On Tuesday and Wednesday we will be putting up posters and
distributing leaflets for the rally in neighborhoods across the Twin Cities
frequented by the bus riders, the transit dependent in particular. We’ll
be meeting at 10:30 am Tuesday and Wednesday morning in the Dinkytown parking
lot at the corner of 15th Ave and 5th St, behind McDonalds, and then disperse
in carloads to various areas of the Cities. We especially need people with cars
to come along. RSVP if you can. Call Ty at 612-760-1980.
5 Get on the Strike Support Email list!
At a teach-in/organizing meeting Friday afternoon, about 25
people, mostly U of M students, gathered to form an unofficial transit strike
support committee. If you want to be involved, you may want to join the yahoogroups
list we created to discuss and communicate. It could be a semi-high volume list
for the duration of the strike. Send an otherwise blank (no subject, no text)
email to: StrikeSupportfirstname.lastname@example.org