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How the Twin City Lines bus strike transformed transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul

The strike provided the opportunity for public acquisition of the company and dramatic service improvements.

historical photo of twin city lines bus
Twin City Lines bus on West Seventh and Washington Streets, St. Paul, 1954.

In 1969, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 called a strike against Twin City Lines (TCL), the metropolitan area’s largest privately owned bus company. Most union members and patrons probably didn’t realize it at the time, but that strike would prove to be a critical turning point for Twin Cities public transit. It would provide the opportunity for public acquisition of the company and dramatic service improvements.

In the late 1960s, TCL was on a downward slide. It was the victim of an aging fleet, increasing fares, and declining ridership. The strike came at the start of the 1969 Christmas shopping season, when the two downtowns still were centers of retailing. As the twenty-five-day strike dragged on, Governor Harold LeVander came under increasing pressure from downtown retailers to intervene.

For years, the forces had been building for public ownership of the bus company. Its owners recognized that there were more lucrative investments than transit. Union leaders thought a public body would be easier to negotiate with than TCL’s owners. Downtown retailers and employers were desperate for a reliable transit system to serve their employees and customers. And then, Congress provided an additional incentive. In 1964, it passed legislation authorizing $375 million in grants for mass transportation.

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Disenchantment with the region’s bus service had been building for years. After multiple failures, transit advocates in 1967 secured legislation creating a nine-member Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC). The legislation granted the commission broad powers to acquire and improve existing transit facilities. But the measure may have had an additional supporter behind the scenes—the owners of Minnesota Enterprises Inc. (MEI), the bus company’s corporate parent. They had lost interest in running the struggling bus company. And who else would buy it other than a public entity?

While the MTC attempted negotiations with MEI, the agency returned to the legislature in 1969 seeking authority to acquire the bus company through “quick-take” condemnation. This process would allow the agency to take control of the bus system as soon as a court-appointed panel set the price, even if the owners appealed that amount in the courts. While MEI likely opposed the idea, the condemnation provision was enacted into law.

While pursuing condemnation powers, the MTC also opposed the company’s request from the state Public Service Commission (PSC) for a 5-cent increase in TCL’s 25-cent bus fare. The company had proposed the increase in December 1968. The MTC argued that the bus company already was making a “reasonable profit.” They also argued that TCL was diverting transit revenues to its corporate parent and negatively affecting its financial results.

After twenty-seven days of hearings, the PSC granted the nickel fare increase on October 31, 1969. But the commission also criticized the company’s accounting and financial practices.

Meanwhile, the bus company and its union had been pressing up against an October 31 deadline—the expiration of their contract. The union sought an immediate salary increase of 51 cents an hour, raising the pay of drivers to four dollars an hour and mechanics to $4.16 an hour. The parties failed to reach agreement, and the union went on strike November 17.

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On December 11, LeVander summoned the parties to “find out why the strike has not been settled…” During a marathon meeting, David Durenberger, LeVander’s top aide, shuttled back and forth between the company, union, and MTC. Late in the night, the company agreed to an 11-cent hourly raise. The MTC agreed to condemn TCL and to provide another 29-cent raise upon acquisition.

The MTC quickly used its condemnation powers to acquire the company and took possession on September 18, 1970. Thanks to the work of the its staff and consultants, the MTC already had in hand a thirteen-point improvement plan. It also had a federal commitment of $9.7 million to help fund the acquisition and the first-phase improvements. The first buses rolled out of their garages at 5 a.m., sporting new decals with a large white “T” (for transit) encircled in red.

The most significant feature of the MTC’s improvement plan was the purchase of ninety-three new, air-conditioned buses a year for five years. The purchases reduced the average age of the fleet from fourteen years to six years and afforded riders much-improved service.

Editor’s note: This article contains text adapted from “1969 Bus Strike: Twin Cities Mass Transit Turning Point” (Minnesota History 66, no. 7 (Fall 2019): 274–284), used here with the permission of both the publisher and the author.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.