Metro Transit Workers Say Improving Transit Starts with Better Working Conditions

ATU 1005 members discuss pay, staffing, safety as TA is reached.

The approximately 2,500 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 1005 want more from the Metropolitan Council, the municipal agency that manages the transit system in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. 

The previous contract expired on July 31, 2023 and on September 10 and 11 of 2023, members voted to authorize a strike, with 94% of those who turned out voting in favor. Five months later, on February 8, 2024, a tentative agreement (TA) was reached between the Metropolitan Council and the union’s bargaining committee. 

The full TA has not been publicly released, though financial details have. They show the proposed deal increases pay for rail mechanics, as well as a pay increase for bus drivers, and, according to one worker, some of the lowest paid employees in the bargaining unit. The TA also allows for improvements for workers scheduled on second and third shifts.

The members will vote on whether or not to accept the TA on February 18 and 19.

The ATU 1005 members are made up of bus drivers, light rail operators, mechanics, customer service representatives, and “helpers,” who clean and maintain bus and train shelters. In interviews conducted during the contract campaign, before the TA was reached, ATU 1005 shared their priorities: improved pay, increasing staffing, tackling the high-pressure nature of bus driving, and addressing concerns of safety and public health while on the job. Several workers say that improving the conditions and pay for workers can increase ridership.

The contract campaign coincides with a joint pressure point in the Minnesota labor movement: ATU 1005 has participated with various Minnesota unions that have expired contracts and bargaining going into the spring of 2024 with expired contracts. 

Fair pay 

From the outset, fair and dignified wages have been central to the fight for a new contract. “They need to increase the wages to make these jobs enticing. There’s a lot of frustration that they’re not doing that—that’s the roadblock for Metro Transit’s hiring right now,” Local 1005 president Ryan Timlin told MPR News in an article published shortly after the strike vote. “We’re still way short on operators, but we’re short in every position beyond operators.”

For members, improved compensation is critical not only for improving workers’ lives, but for improving the experiences of riders, and retaining enough workers to have a well-functioning public transition system.

Prior to reaching the TA, Myles Alteri, a rail mechanic for almost six years and a union representative, cites low pay as a driving force behind low staffing and retention, especially for rail mechanics. For more than two years, Metro Transit has been reducing bus services, citing a worker shortage and reduction in ridership, though in the summer of 2023, it started slowly bringing some services back. 

“Everybody in our building is currently paid under what they’re paid in the industry,” Alteri tells Workday Magazine, explaining that commercial and regional rail pays significantly more for the same skills. While the main draw to work for Metro Transit is the lack of overnight travel, the lower pay and weekend and second shift schedules drive away a lot of mechanics, Alteri explains.

In December 2023, Timlin said inflation had intensified the union’s concerns about pay. “Over the last year inflation has skyrocketed,” he says.

Matthew Harris, a bus driver for five years, agreed back in October 2023 that pay is the number one issue facing Metro Transit workers. “I think that [we] don’t feel respected,” he told Workday Magazine. “One of the main reasons is because the cost of living has gone up so much and our pay is not keeping up with that. So you can invest all this time and work, being a good employee spending years there and your spending power goes down.”

High-pressure work

After completing a route, bus drivers are allotted anywhere from 7 to 30 minutes of “recovery time” before getting back on the road. However, any delays are taken out of their break time, often resulting in very brief opportunities to rest. Abigael Ensor, Metro Transit bus driver for four and a half years, describes this as “turn and burn,” where drivers forfeit the recovery time all together in order to keep the schedule on time. 

Abigael Ensor, Metro Transit bus operator, stands in front of the 2 bus in Minneapolis. Photo by Isabela Escalona.
Abigael Ensor, Metro Transit bus operator, stands in front of the 2 bus in Minneapolis. Photo by Isabela Escalona.

Ensor explains that many bus drivers would prefer to forfeit their breaks than keep the route from leaving later, as that can result in crankier riders. “When you start driving, you realize that there’s something fundamentally at odds, and that is the schedule versus following these policies.”

If drivers followed every single rule, Ensor says, the buses would run extremely late. “I ended up getting tendonitis from doing that route, because there were no breaks.” 

According to Alteri, there has been a change in the culture over the years. “Working your fingers into the bone is not cool anymore, especially in my industry.” 

Alteri says that work should be secondary to family life. “I think the only reason we’re here fighting for what we want as workers as hard as we can—so we can go to a home with our family, get them more food in their bellies, better roof over their head, and just more happiness overall.”

Public health and safety

Along with the high-pressure expectations of bus drivers from lack of breaks and scheduling, Metro Transit workers also expressed frustration with the ways the transit system is often tasked to respond to compounding social issues of poverty, homelessness, addiction and untreated mental illness.

Drug use and smoke exposure on transit have garnered headlines in local press, and this is a working condition that transit workers mentioned, too, concerned about both their own exposure and the experiences of riders, who often hail from the poor and working classes. Harris said, as a worker, he wants to make sure that transit infrastructure is pleasant and free from smoke exposure to everyone who relies on those services.

“These issues are downstream of issues of poverty, affordability, and lack of support for those experiencing addiction,” he says. “It seems like there’s no imagination for how to fix that,” he says, adding, “there’s a lack of creative and intelligent willpower and know-how for how to really address these systems.” 

Zach Anderson is programs director of Southside Harm Reduction, a volunteer-run nonprofit in south Minneapolis that provides direct services to people who use drugs and who are experiencing homelessness. He said, “There comes a point every year where transit becomes the largest overnight shelter,” along with public libraries, “because those are the two public spaces that are left in the world”. 

Anderson emphasizes that Metro Transit workers are not necessarily trained on how to support people experiencing overdoses, and that it is not reasonable to expect them to. “First of all, overdoses are dangerous and scary, intense, and traumatizing,” he underscored. “So that’s a lot to put on somebody who signed up to be a bus driver. … Solidarity with the workers who are having to deal with that.”  

While Anderson encourages the agency to train workers with how to respond to an overdose and carry naloxone, he also urges Metro Transit workers to use their collective power to push city and state agencies to address homelessness and drug use in a way that gets to the root of the issue. “Obviously, people are ending up in trains and buses when they get swept from spot to spot,” he adds, in reference to the recent series of encampment sweeps in Minneapolis, which have grown more aggressive in recent years. From 2015 to 2018, homelessness in Minnesota increased 10%, and for those over the age of 55, it spiked 25%. 

The issues these workers confront stem from a broader public health crisis, and often drivers are placed in the position of having to respond to health emergencies, for populations that often don’t have reliable preventative access to health resources. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, deadly opioid overdoses in Minnesota have peaked to historic highs. In 2019, 427 deadly opioid-related deaths were reported in Minnesota—that number nearly tripled to 1,002 reported opioid overdose deaths in 2022. 

In addition to public health, safety on Metro Transit, specifically the light rail, has been highly debated in recent years. Adam Burch, a Metro Transit bus driver for the past five years, described the issue of safety as a “vicious cycle” in an interview in September 2023. If riders feel unsafe or have a negative experience, they may opt for other modes of transportation, resulting in a decrease in ridership. When more riders opt out of public transit, this creates a more desolate environment where it is difficult to address and de-escalate aggressive behaviors, hurting workers and riders alike.

As of September 2022, public transportation ridership nationwide was around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association. When it comes to Metro Transit buses and trains, ridership was up 17% in the first eight months of 2023, but still just 57% of its pre pre-pandemic levels. While approaches to public safety and route reliability vary among the rank and file, Metro Transit workers seem to agree that increasing ridership is one of the most effective measures of improving rider and driver experiences.

Burch explains that by increasing drivers and other workers’ salaries, more staff will apply and be motivated to stay, which in turn increases ride frequency, authoritative presence, and therefore, a better sense of safety and support on buses and trains. 

Timlin says that “more people out there reduces the likelihood of major incidents happening.” Burch and Timlin agree that the problems aboard the buses and trains are systemic issues stemming from poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental health. 

Abigael Ensor explains the high pressure nature of the job and struggles of women bus drivers. Ensor has experienced sexual harassment and other forms of aggressive behavior from riders, she says. She details a time an individual who was riding her bus lingered after they arrived at the bus terminal and made sexually charged and intrusive remarks as she tried to take a break between shifts on a late-night route.

While Ensor wishes there was more she could do, or more support for drivers in unsafe situations, she explains that often the best option is to just keep the bus moving. When buses are delayed, she says, people get more frustrated, and more problems arise. And the system is not equipped to support every issue that comes up. These experiences weigh heavily, she says, and make the job less than ideal for workers. “It’s a thankless job.”

Isabela is the Senior Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

Comments are closed.