A threatened strike by unionized Metro Transit workers could derail train and bus transit during Super Bowl week in February. Such an unfortunate and unnecessary work stoppage would not only exacerbate hassles associated with such a big event, but mar a once-in-a-generation opportunity to showcase the Twin Cities to the world.
That’s an outcome that absolutely must be avoided.
Each side — the Metropolitan Council, which runs the transit system, and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 — have a broader responsibility to the community to think and act beyond institutional interests. The encouraging news is that leaders of both sides told an editorial writer that they remain optimistic that a deal can get done.
Neither side would reveal details on the negotiations over wages, health care, working conditions and other topics. Differences exist, and negotiations won’t be easy, but they’re probably bridgeable. A mediator is already working to bring the two sides closer together.
But there is a more fundamental principle on the table: safety. Specifically, the union is justifiably asking that something be done about operator safety, most specifically on Metro Transit buses where drivers are vulnerable targets of abuse and assault. While some solutions such as cameras and transit police can and have helped, the problem certainly hasn’t gone away, and the recent rise in crime and a crisis in untreated mental illness suggest the problem could get worse.
Through October, out of a ridership of 69.5 million, drivers have been targeted in 147 incidents: one felony assault, 51 gross misdemeanors (38 for spitting), 21 misdemeanors, and 74 incidents of disorderly conduct or threats. In all of 2016, there were 162 incidents and 82.6 million riders.
Although the numbers seem relatively low given the ridership figures, one incident is too many. These kinds of crimes are dangerous for bus drivers, to be sure, but also for passengers, pedestrians and other drivers, all of whom may be harmed if a bus veers off course.
The union is suggesting a protective barrier between drivers and passengers. Metro Transit plans to test such a system in 20 buses. Concern that this might be a barrier to potential riders who might think the system unsafe is misplaced. In fact, the opposite would likely be true.
Retrofitting buses for more driver protection would come at a cost, of course. But the price is unknown, and it’s distressing that this far into the negotiations, with the union already resoundingly rejecting a contract offer, that neither the union nor the Met Council could calculate a total price tag on barriers. More pencils — and minds, including those in the Legislature and the Dayton administration — need to be sharpened so negotiations can be honed.
The union and the Met Council, like all Minnesotans, have a lot riding on Super Bowl LII regardless of what happens on the field. Long before kickoff, negotiators need to concentrate, and compromise, to show that Minnesota has a safe and efficient transit system that can serve major events.