Leveraging the threat of a crippling strike during the Super Bowl, 2,500 local transit workers begin voting Sunday on a new contract that would raise wages and improve safety on the job.

Union leadership recommended they approve the deal, following tense negotiations and heated rallies at Metropolitan Council meetings throughout the week. The labor dispute brought attention to what Metro Transit drivers say is an unsafe workplace, where passengers physically assault them and many suffer through the stress of inadequate bathroom breaks.

"We want respect in the workplace," said Mark Lawson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005.

The proposed contract increases wages by 2.5 percent per year, over three years, and leaves health care plans untouched. A third-year bus driver making $45,115 today would earn $57,679 by the year three of the contract, not including average overtime of $8,400 a year, according to the council.

The push for improved safety conditions resulted in the installation of protective plexiglass beside the driver's seat in 21 buses, starting this week, to see how they work.

Improving the workstation of bus drivers has been a priority of the international Amalgamated Transit Union in Washington, which asked local unions this fall to express support for changes. International ATU President Larry Hanley said the coming Super Bowl was a chance to give the issue attention.

"What the transit industry is doing is making us play without headgear, without helmets and without padding," Hanley said. "They're making us just go out there and take the beating."

'We aren't safe'

Metro Transit data show there have been 72 felony-level assaults on bus drivers since 2010, which are the most serious out of more than 1,000 assault and harassment incidents over that period. Drivers are spit on roughly 35 times per year, an act that became a gross misdemeanor in 2013.

A review of court records paints a picture of what drivers endure in the most serious cases.

Many involve passengers punching a driver in the face — sometimes several times — often after being asked to pay the fare. In other cases, passengers choked drivers, slapped drivers, threw bottles, fought with other passengers in the driver area and grabbed drivers' breasts

Driver Deb Sievers was slugged by a 14-year-old girl just over two years ago after asking a group of teenagers not to interfere with other passengers. The girl ran out the bus door after the assault, and her mother turned her in a week later.

"I've ended up with PSTD. I've got anxiety," said Sievers, a 13-year veteran of the agency. "We aren't safe on our buses."

Sievers helps console colleagues affected by similar incidents as a peer support operator, which included waiting for a driver to get out of surgery when his nose was cut open by a passenger.

Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said last week that as a rider since the age of 14, he understands the challenges drivers face. He said the agency has added cameras and police protection to boost safety.

"I think we've been really responsive over the years," Lamb said. "We're willing to take a look at how protective shields might work."

Other transit systems across the country have also added partitions to protect drivers. They've been installed in New York City, Chicago and on many buses in Washington, D.C., among other cities.

New York City completed installation across its bus fleet this year after the city's union pushed for the barriers in its contract several years ago.

"It does provide a definite level of protection that was needed," said Jim Gannon, a spokesman for Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents most of the city's transit workers. "In general, I think the drivers are happy with it. It doesn't prevent all assaults, but it definitely helps."

Chicago rolled out barriers in 2007 to roughly a quarter of its fleet. They were ultimately redesigned after drivers said the first versions made it difficult to talk to passengers, or even to breathe, according to the Chicago Transit Authority. All the agency's buses now have redesigned barriers.

"CTA does believe these protective shields absolutely are helpful in protecting drivers, based on the feedback we've received," CTA spokesman Jon Kaplan said in an e-mail.


Union members surprised Met Council members at Monday's Transportation Committee with hand-delivered Mason jars, filled with yellowish liquid, labeled "Metro Transit Driver's #1." It was juice, but the stunt was intended to make a point about restrooms.

Incoming union president Ryan Timlin said some routes have restrooms at both ends, while others have them only mid-route. Stopping mid-route could mean some riders don't make their transfers. Sometimes the schedule is too tight to stop at the end of the route.

"It needs to be dealt with because its causing harm to the workforce's body as time goes on," Timlin said.

Lawson said it becomes a medical problem for some long-term drivers.

"Frankly, some of the older drivers, I've known some of them that have had to wear adult diapers on the job because after having wrecked their bladders for 30 or 40 years, they can't cross their legs and hold it anymore," Lawson said.

The latest contract says a committee will be formed to ensure that the end of each route will have proper restrooms open at all hours, especially on weekends.

Events as leverage

It's not the first time a major sporting event has been used by a transit union to influence collective bargaining.

In 2015, 300 bus drivers in Phoenix threatened to strike during the Super Bowl over health care issues and reached a deal just a week before Super Bowl events began. In 2009, Philadelphia transit workers threatened to strike during the World Series over wages and benefits. They walked off the job the day the games between the Phillies and the Yankees moved to New York.

"Transit strikes are always big deals because they impact the traveling public, and the businesses that employ them, as well as the employer itself," said Dave Riehle, a former railroad worker who has researched Twin Cities transit labor history. "They typically have not been frequent or long-lasting."

The last major Twin Cities transit strike occurred in 2004, when the Met Council attempted to rein in wages and health care benefits. It lasted about six weeks.

"Everyone thought that the city was going to grind to a halt, and it really didn't. That really didn't happen," said Peter Bell, who chaired the Met Council during the 2004 negotiations.

Bell said he was surprised to see the union proposing a strike during the Super Bowl.

"I think the public would say, 'Oh my God, why do you have to pick this time, when Minneapolis and St. Paul are in the international spotlight and you are looking at very parochial interests?' " Bell said.

eric.roper@startribune.com 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper