Politics & Policy

Pawlenty’s Transit Strike

Facing unsustainable union retirement benefits, Pawlenty chose to fight.

In 2004, Tim Pawlenty faced a choice: accede to the transit union’s compensation demands or risk igniting a strike that would seriously disrupt commuters’ lives.

Pawlenty chose the strike.

That’s a decision the Minnesota governor has highlighted recently, no doubt hoping to benefit from the same sort of enthusiasm that made Wisconsin governor Scott Walker a Tea Party favorite for his dogged fight to limit public-employee unions’ collective-bargaining powers.

“I took on the public-employee unions before it was popular to do it,” Pawlenty said two weeks ago in his speech in Iowa announcing his candidacy. “On the 45th day of the strike, the union came back to the table, and taxpayers won. Today, we have a transit system that gives commuters a ride, without taking the taxpayers for a ride.”

Peter Bell, a Pawlenty appointee, is chairman of the Metropolitan Council, charged with overseeing public transportation in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area. Bell recalls that “the heart of the issue was retiree health-care benefits.” Some workers were eligible for lifetime health-care benefits as soon as they had worked as little as ten years and were 55 or older. Bell, with Pawlenty’s approval, wanted to start requiring those already working for the transit system to be employed for 17 years before they were eligible for any retirement health-care benefits. For new employees, he wanted to eliminate retirement health-care benefits entirely.

Compensation and current health-care benefits were also matters of dispute between the union and the Council. But behind it all was the unfunded liability of $255 million caused by the retiree health-care benefits. “This unfunded liability was really the Pac-Man in our transit budget,” Bell says. “It was going to eat up all our resources.”

“We don’t want a strike, but we cannot continue to give lifetime health-care benefits,” Pawlenty said at the time, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Whether either side wanted a strike or not, the two sides’ inability to settle resulted in a strike that began on March 4 and continued for 44 more days. During that time, people who would normally have taken a bus (daily ridership: 75,000) scrambled to find alternative forms of transportation. Particularly hard-hit were low-income commuters who relied on the buses to go to their jobs.

Pawlenty offered grants (using the money being saved while the buses were not running) to nonprofits if they would give people rides to get to work or medical appointments. But the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits rushed to oppose the proposal, urging its 1,400 affiliated nonprofits to forgo the grants even before the Metropolitan Council had finalized the offer. Transit-union president Ron Lloyd applauded the nonprofits’ move, reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but still complained that Pawlenty had even made the proposal. Opposing it, Lloyd grumbled, made it seem “like you’re against the poor,” and he argued that the offer was solely “designed to make [Pawlenty] look good.”

While the tension never escalated to Wisconsin-like levels, Pawlenty faced plenty of angry people in the Twin Cities. Hundreds assembled at protest rallies. One local union leader accused Pawlenty of a “total lack of respect to the working class and the poor” and said “Pawlenty’s attitude is, ‘As long as I got mine, the heck to everyone else.’” An environmental activist petitioned the courts to allow for a gubernatorial recall election. (The courts denied the request.) Pawlenty told Rush Limbaugh last month that one sign called him a “weapon of mass-transit destruction.”

The strike was extensively covered in the daily newspapers, and that eventually swung public support to Pawlenty’s side. “Because we had so much press coverage, we were able to lay out the merits of the argument,” Pawlenty wrote in his book, Courage to Stand. “Once the public knew the bus drivers wanted full health-care coverage for the rest of their lives after only 15 years of service, they were with us.” Another boon for the Council was the absence of sympathy strikes by other unions.

Pawlenty was not just an interested bystander. Throughout the strike, Bell says, he and Pawlenty talked just about every day. As pressure built and union members grew increasingly anxious to get back to work, the governor directly joined the negotiations between the Council and the union.

“The governor really was taking a lead role in that,” Bell says. “He wasn’t just a recipient of information. The governor really came into the negotiations and led them at the end.” The Star Tribune singled out Pawlenty in a 2004 editorial: “Gov. Tim Pawlenty emerged as an important force in negotiations and, along with Met Council Chairman Peter Bell and union leaders, deserves credit for resolving the strike.”

In the end, partially thanks to the money saved by not running the buses for a month and a half, the bus drivers were given a more generous compensation package than the Council had originally offered. But the union compromised, too. On retiree health-care benefits, the status quo remained in place for current employees, including lifetime benefits after ten years of service. For new hires, though, there would be no retirement health-care benefits, a major defeat for the union.

On current health-care costs, the union got a better deal, winning the fight over whether to retain the existing health-care plan and premiums. (The new premiums were slightly lower, offset by new doctors’-visit co-pays and a hike in drug co-pays.) On wages, the Council agreed to a slightly higher raise than originally offered, and agreed to give employees a one-time bonus.

Ultimately, Bell says, “we got what we needed to get.”

Pawlenty was also pleased with the outcome. “The [bus] drivers were well-meaning people,” he wrote in Courage, “but over the years management and labor officials had enabled them, and each other, to create a system with a benefit that was excessive and unsustainable. The gig was up, and it had to change.”

“The union understood,” he added. “Crisis over. The buses started rolling again.”

Mitch Pearlstein, president of Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota think tank, says that Pawlenty “prevailed.”

“You’re never going to get everything,” Pearlstein acknowledges, but speaks favorably of what Pawlenty did achieve. “He took a long strike that was very inconvenient for a lot of people and . . . he clearly won.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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