Leaders of the Twin Cities bus drivers union that threatened to strike during the Super Bowl recommended Thursday that their members approve a contract offer from the Metropolitan Council.
If approved, the deal would avert a potentially calamitous disruption during one of the largest events in recent Twin Cities history. The 2,500 members, which include bus drivers, mechanics and other Metro Transit staff, will vote on Sunday and Monday.
Drivers pushed hard for more safety protections after years of assaults by passengers, resulting in a pilot program to install 21 protective barriers beside the driver's seat on some buses. Other points of contention had included driver access to restrooms and the maximum hours worked by part-time drivers, which Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 President Mark Lawson said were resolved.
"This is, I feel, a true compromise and a good compromise," Lawson said. "And the nature of compromise is we didn't get everything we wanted, they didn't get everything they wanted."
The Met Council's final offer, presented Wednesday, raises wages by 2.5 percent per year over the three-year life of the contract. It leaves health care plans untouched and provides extra money for vehicle technicians to buy a pricier list of required tools.
"All sides really took it seriously and we were able to work together to find, ultimately, an offer that I think everyone thought was respectful, reasonable and responsive to what the members needed," said Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman. "We value our drivers."
Pressure has been building in recent weeks to reach a deal.
Drivers crowded into council meetings sporting "LII" stickers — a nod to the Super Bowl — and on Monday distributed jars of fake urine to council members to highlight inadequate bathroom facilities. On Wednesday night, a council meeting opened to chants of R-E-S-P-E-C-T from union members in the chambers.
Passengers even felt the pinch, whether they knew it or not, when a group of drivers refused to work overtime earlier this month and left a number of buses unstaffed.
Safety was one of the primary sticking points for the union, which wanted commitments built into the contract about the barriers.
Metro Transit says there were 162 assaults on drivers in 2016, about half of which were classified as threats or disorderly conduct. Four assaults were felonies and 56 were gross misdemeanors, including nearly three dozen spitting incidents.
"Here's the bottom line with it: It never stops," Lawson said. "It never stops."
The council initially wanted to raise the maximum hours that a part-time driver can work, but Lawson said that change was withdrawn during negotiations. He added that there will be a committee formed to address restroom problems for drivers.
At a recent rally outside a Met Council committee meeting, driver Andy Mason held a sign reading "Super Bowl" above a picture of the toilet at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center.
"It is usually in a state of disrepair. We just do not have enough people cleaning our facilities and our buses," Mason said. Others complained there are not enough adequate restrooms.
The threat of a Super Bowl without transit loomed over negotiations.
Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said after a labor strategy meeting last week that they were beginning to envision not having transit during the event, which is expected to rely heavily on the system to move people around the region.
Lawson said his members have long considered the Super Bowl an opportunity to bring attention to their contract. "It's obvious the Super Bowl's in the back, or maybe even by now the front, of everybody's mind," Lawson said.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper