After a year of difficult negotiations, the union representing more than 2,300 Metro Transit bus drivers, light-rail operators and others approved a new contract this week, averting a strike.

On Sunday and Monday, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 overwhelmingly ratified the three-year pact, with 71% voting in favor, and 29% opposing the deal. The contract covers 2,350 members and includes cleaners and clerks at the transit agency.

The agreement calls for a 6.5% wage increase over the life of the contract, retroactive to July 25, 2020, a $1,000 one-time bonus and improved sick leave.

Local President Ryan Timlin said the goal of the contract was to recognize the contributions of transit workers as "front-line heroes" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union fought hard for additional "hazard pay" for Metro Transit workers who clocked in during the pandemic when bus and train service was curtailed to essential trips.

But in the end, hazard pay was not included in the deal.

"It's bittersweet," Timlin said Tuesday, adding that the union will lobby the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz for hazard pay.

In September, members voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract offer extended by Metro Transit, largely because hazard pay was not included, and they authorized a strike if talks continued to stall.

The vote this week averted a strike, but some bad feelings appear to linger on the union's side.

"I want to be clear: We aren't here because of the generosity of the Metropolitan Council," Timlin said in a statement. "We got here because Local 1005 members mobilized again and again, in the sweltering heat and freezing cold, to push back against a pattern of abuse, disrespect and greed at Metro Transit."

Met Council spokeswoman Terri Dresen said in a statement, "This contract is not only supportive of our employees but will allow us to continue our work of providing safe, reliable transit services to the communities we serve."

Ridership on public transportation plummeted during the pandemic and is still a fraction of what it was before the outbreak. As of last week, ridership was roughly 40% to 45% of what it was before the pandemic.

It's unclear when passengers will return to public transportation, especially after large employers Target, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo have delayed employees' return to their downtown Minneapolis offices as the highly contagious delta variant spreads.

Still, Timlin said ratification of the contract is a "step in the right direction."

The Met Council will vote on the deal Sept. 8.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @ByJanetMoore