Metro Transit bus drivers were attacked more than 70 times this year

Diane Rude was attacked by a passenger who hooked a scarf around her neck and tried to drag her out of her seat.

Diane Rude was attacked by a passenger who hooked a scarf around her neck and tried to drag her out of her seat. ATU International

Unable to reach a contract agreement with Metro Transit, unionized bus drivers are threatening to strike during the Super Bowl. Topping their list of demands is bus operator safety, which the Amalgamated Transit Union calls a perennial issue that has never been proactively addressed.

“Operators have to endure a large magnitude of abuse, and I’m throwing verbal abuse into that. It can be any day, any time, day or night,” says Mark Lawson, ATU Local 1005 president. “[Metro Transit] might point to statistics saying well there's less assaults this year or last year. The numbers go up and down, but they never go away.”

According to data from Metro Transit, there have been 73 assaults, 41 threats, and 34 instances of disorderly conduct on buses reported and verified as accurate since January 2017.

They include one felony level assault from February, which began with two men aged 28 and 33 refusing to pay the fare after boarding at Lake Street and Blaisdell Avenue South. One of the men swung at the driver, so the driver hit him in the face. When the second man joined in the fight, a passenger leapt to the driver’s aid, grabbing the two belligerents and throwing them off the bus.

Also in February, a man in his 20s was caught on camera spitting on a bus driver as he disembarked at 16th and Nicollet. Footage showed the passenger playing loud music and singing, “Motherfuck,” “fuck,” and “suck everyone’s dick.” He also yelled at the driver, “What the fuck are you looking back for, n****r?” When the driver told the passenger to cut it out, the passenger walked to the front of the bus, warned the driver that he’ll “Remember him,” and spit on the driver before exiting.

In June, an 18-year-old man threatened a female driver after she yelled back at him to stop swearing into his phone and causing a disturbance on her bus. The passenger approached the driver, called her a black bitch, threatened to spit on her, and kept swearing and yelling at her until she was forced to pull over and stop.

Watch local bus operators talk about the dangers of the job:

Metro Transit has installed security cameras on buses, and trained drivers on all sorts of “de-escalation tactics,” such as speaking calmly to agitated customers while addressing the issue, not the person. Neither strategy has been particularly successful, Lawson says. Video footage might assist prosecution of combative riders, but it doesn’t prevent violence. And de-escalation techniques don’t work on everybody.

The union wants physical barriers installed on every bus that separate drivers from riders who punch, choke, and spit on them. Preferably with adjustable windows so that they can continue to interact with regular riders on familiar routes.

Metro Transit didn’t address that proposal at all in their contract negotiations, Lawson says, leading workers to reject its last offer and authorize a strike on November 13. The parties faced off again with a mediator on November 22, but there was no progress toward reaching an agreement.

“Regarding the shields or barriers, while we have heard from some operators that this is something they would like considered, we have heard from others that it would not be something with which they would be comfortable,” said Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla.

Meanwhile, Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb sent out a company newsletter December 1 announcing that protective barriers will be added to 20 buses as soon as possible.

“Testing these barriers will help members of our Transit Safety and Security Committee, Bus Operations, Bus Maintenance, police and others, better understand their impact on operator safety and the practicality of their use going forward,” Lamb wrote.

Lawson said the company newsletter was the first time that he’d been told of the pilot program.

“This really in my mind is nothing more than a PR stunt,” Lawson says of the pilot program. “I don’t understand why they don’t want to talk to us at the bargaining table about this.”

The union sent Metro Transit a revised proposal on Friday, but has not heard back, and there are currently no further negotiation dates scheduled.

At this rate, Lawson says the union is still planning to go on strike.