For the 120 Metro workers on strike at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Cinder Bed Bus Garage in Lorton, 2019 ended in anxiety with no promise of relief when the calendar flips to a new year.
The Cinder Bed strike surpassed the two-month mark on Christmas Eve, as negotiations between the private contractor Transdev and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 show few signs of progress since bus operators and maintenance workers represented by the labor union walked off the job on Oct. 24.
The standoff continues even after ATU Local 689 members approved a four-year agreement with WMATA intended to prevent similar labor disputes over privatization in the future.
Over 93 percent of ATU Local 689 members voted for the labor deal on Dec. 19, a decisive show of support that was followed on Dec. 20 by approval from the Metro board of directors.
“Thousands voted at 25 different locations with only a few days’ notice,” ATU Local 689 said in a statement. “…The deal safeguards our members from privatization, guarantees steady wage increases, and helps provide a path towards bringing the Cinder Bed Bus garage in-house while protecting the workers that work there now.”
ATU Local 689 represents approximately 8,000 Metro employees, making it the largest union for workers in the regional transit agency that operates the third largest heavy rail transit system and sixth largest bus network in the U.S.
First announced jointly by Metro and union leaders on Dec. 10, the new labor contract includes a 2.4 percent annual average wage increase for ATU employees and establishes incentives for rider growth for the first time in WMATA’s history.
Under the agreement, Metro workers will receive an additional 1 percent wage increase for years when the transit system’s ridership rises 2 percent or more over the previous year, according to details shared by WMATA after its board of directors approved the deal.
Set to take effect after the current contract between WMATA and ATU Local 689 expires on June 30, 2020, the agreement also keeps the existing defined benefit pension system in place for new and current employees, while increasing employee contributions to retiree health coverage.
The deal will keep Metro within a legally mandated annual subsidy growth of 3 percent at a cost of $150 million over the next four years, while letting General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld focus on limiting operating cost growth as the region invests in the transit system through an annual dedicated funding source established in 2018 by Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
“This agreement has pluses and minuses for both labor and management,” Metro board chair Paul Smedberg said. “But overall it treats our employees fairly, continues their good wages and benefits, and signals that they will be rewarded as Metro service improves.”
The contract represents a significant victory for the union in its battle against the privatization of public transit services.
Metro has now committed to not contracting out operations or maintenance work for its Silver Line extension. The project’s second phase, which will bring rail service to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is currently expected to open this upcoming summer.
WMATA has also agreed to bring the Cinder Bed garage operations in-house once its contract with Transdev expires in 2021.
The transit agency originally awarded Transdev a contract to maintain and operate the Cinder Bed facility on Aug. 2, 2018, citing a need to control costs without reducing service levels for customers or eliminating jobs for existing Metro employees.
The decision to privatize the facility fueled contract workers’ frustrations as they receive less pay and fewer benefits than their colleagues employed directly by WMATA, contributing to the labor dispute with Transdev that ultimately turned into the first Metro strike since 1978.
The ongoing strike has disrupted 18 Metrobus routes that are serviced by the Cinder Bed garage and used by roughly 8,500 riders per day.
In exchange for WMATA’s commitment to not privatize work on the Silver Line, ATU agreed to let the transit agency hire directly from the market employees necessary to support the extension, including nearly a third of all station managers and train operators.
Previous labor contracts restricted WMATA to hiring station managers and train operators from an existing pool, according to Metro.
“This agreement creates a foundation for us to improve customer service and grow ridership, all while living within mandated subsidy limits,” said Wiedefeld, who negotiated the labor deal over months of direct collective bargaining with ATU Local 689 President Raymond Jackson.
However, ATU’s now-official agreement with WMATA has not brought any resolution to the Cinder Bed workers’ dispute with Transdev, which coincided earlier this month with a strike by Fairfax Connector employees.
More than 500 bus drivers and mechanics represented by ATU Local 1764 walked off their jobs on Dec. 5 after negotiations between the union and Transdev over a new collective bargaining agreement stalled.
Affecting approximately 30,000 passengers on 91 bus routes, the Fairfax Connector strike lasted four days before intervention by county leaders, including incoming Board of Supervisors chair Jeff McKay, led the two parties to sign a back-to-work agreement on Dec. 8, enabling the public bus service return to its regular operating schedule.
Talks for a new labor contract remain ongoing with an ATU Local 1764 bargaining committee stating in an update on Dec. 20 that there has been progress on maintenance, wages, healthcare, and protections against dashboard cameras being used to discipline workers.
Negotiations will resume on Jan. 6, according to ATU field mobilization specialist John Ertl.
On the Metro side, Transdev and ATU Local 689 will not return to the table until Jan. 14, the union says in a statement accusing the private contractor of not guaranteeing in writing that it will not retaliate against the Cinder Bed strikers and commit to bargaining in good faith.
Transdev argues that it continues to bargain in good faith with ATU Local 689, confirming that the next available date for negotiations is in January.
“We have formally communicated in writing to the union over a week ago that we welcome the drivers back with nor repercussions for striking while we continue to negotiate,” Transdev spokesperson Mitun Seguin said in a statement from the company on Dec. 20. “We want to make it absolutely clear that employees can come back to work now or at any time without any issue.”
The Cinder Bed workers have pledged to not return to the facility unless they get a contract with wages and benefits on par with what direct WMATA employees receive, according to ATU.
“This union believes, as it always has, that the way to end this strike is simple,” ATU concluded in its statement. “WMATA should hire all of these operators, utility workers, and mechanics immediately. WMATA should then put them to work restoring service to the stranded riders in Northern Virginia.”