Members of a union representing Metro Transit bus drivers, light-rail operators and others held a rally Tuesday in St. Paul to protest what they consider a lack of progress in contract negotiations.

Contract talks between the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union (ATU) Local 1005 and the Metropolitan Council, which began last summer, have yet to produce a deal. ATU represents some 2,400 bus drivers, LRT operators, mechanics, cleaners and office staff.

Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005, said the two sides remain divided over issues of safety and pay.

"Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in bailout money from the federal government and a holiday surge in COVID-19 infections among working members, Metro Transit management continues to refuse to discuss critical safety issues or pay workers wage increases that are on par with other similar-sized employers in the industry," the union said in a statement.

Spokeswoman Terri Dresen said the negotiating team for the Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, "is committed to doing its part to ensure negotiations are as positive and collaborative as possible and to negotiate a contract proposal that is fair and responsible."

ATU members held an informational picket Tuesday outside the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, where a mediator has been involved in negotiations. Union leaders said they plan to hold another rally Wednesday.

Negotiations with the union come at a critical time for Metro Transit, as overall ridership has declined by 60% in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Ridership on trains and buses is still limited to essential trips, such as forays to work, the grocery store and medical appointments.

Last fall, ATU members rejected a final contract offer from management, and 94% voted to authorize its leaders to call a strike if needed. Talks continued throughout the winter, but union officials said they weren't productive.

Safety of workers, especially those who clean trains and stations, has emerged as a major issue in contract talks, Timlin said. The union is pushing Metro Transit to allow cleaners to pair up for safety reasons, he said, noting some cleaners have been assaulted while doing their jobs.

Timlin said another issue is the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) available to employees, especially those who must clean up feces and vomit on light-rail trains and buses.

Metro Transit won't pay employees hazard pay for work during the pandemic, he said, when members "have put their lives on the line."

Dresen said the safety of employees and customers is the Met Council's top priority. "This includes the issuance of PPE and requirements for using this equipment," she said.

She said the council has initiated a number of safety protocols since the pandemic hit last spring. They include the installation of barriers to separate operators from customers, masking and social distancing requirements, protocols for contact tracing and quarantining when employees fall ill, and disinfecting transit vehicles daily.

The council also is working to set up COVID-19 vaccinations for "public-facing" employees, Dresen said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @ByJanetMoore