Hundreds of Fairfax Connector workers walked off the job on Thursday, joining their colleagues with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority who have now been striking for 44 days.
Both groups of workers are calling for better pay and working conditions from their employer, the private contractor Transdev, a France-based public transport operator that has worked with Metro since August 2018 and Fairfax County since July 1.
The more than 600 Fairfax Connector workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 officially went on strike at 3:00 a.m. on Dec. 5 just one day after the union resumed talks with Transdev to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
Estimates from the union and Fairfax County suggest the strike will affect up to 30,000 bus and rail commuters, reverberating across all 91 bus routes operated by Fairfax Connector.
“We held off as long as we could, but Transdev made clear at negotiations today that they would rather see service disrupted than their unfair labor practices ended,” ATU International President John Costa said in a statement announcing the strike on Wednesday. “While we remain committed to negotiating with Transdev to reach a fair and just contract, workers cannot be asked to tolerate an escalating campaign of union-busting in the meantime.”
Fairfax County awarded Transdev a five-year contract to take over Fairfax Connector operations starting on July 1, leaving the company to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with workers as the existing agreement was set to expire on Nov. 30.
The union’s members voted on Nov. 9 to authorize a strike if the union and Transdev were unable to agree on a new agreement.
Transdev says it “made numerous proposals” during a 10-hour bargaining session on Wednesday before ATU Local 1764 walked away from the table at approximately 8:00 p.m.
According to a statement from the contractor, Transdev reiterated a standing offer to extend the contract that expired on Nov. 30 by 60 days, including retroactive payment for lost wages, to give the parties more time to discuss a new contract.
The company says it was also prepared to offer a wage proposal with additional wage increases, arguing that the union did not make any new counter-proposals.
“Transdev was committed to bargaining in good faith and was hopeful that the parties could continue making progress on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement,” Transdev said in a statement released Wednesday night. “Transdev is extremely disappointed by the Union’s decision to walk away from the bargaining table this evening and then to have later called for a strike impacting the daily commute of Fairfax Connector riders.”
ATU Local 1764 previously indicated that an imminent resolution was unlikely, saying on Dec. 1 that the union and contractor remained “far apart on everything from maintenance wages to holidays, health insurance, sick and vacation leave, retirement, and route assignments.”
The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating 36 separate allegations against Transdev for possible federal labor law violations related to Fairfax Connector operations and its negotiations with Local 1764.
The union accused Transdev of engaging in union-busting behavior in the hours leading up to Wednesday’s bargaining session by distributing leaflets encouraging members to leave the union and cross picket lines.
Transdev also turned away some drivers who reported for their regular shifts on Wednesday “in an effort to discourage their participation in a potential strike,” the union alleges.
A group of Fairfax Connector workers represented by ATU Local 1764 gathered Tuesday night to make final preparations for a strike, including organizing 1,200 meals per day, burn barrels, port-a-potties, firewood, and other essentials.
Local 1764 workers have established picket lines in Herndon at 268 Spring Street, Huntington at 8101 Cinder Bed Road in Lorton, and for West Ox at 4970 Alliance Drive in Fairfax.
In response to the strike, Transdev shifted Fairfax Connector operations from its typical weekday schedule to its Sunday schedule on Thursday.
According to the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, which oversees the Connector, the contractor made that decision in order to provide “the maximum level of reliable bus service that can be provided” considering the limited number of personnel available to operate the buses.
FCDOT suggests commuters affected by the service changes consider alternate ways to travel, such as carpooling, Metro, Virginia Railway Express, biking, walking, and teleworking.
“We appreciate our passengers’ patience as Transdev and ATU are continuing to negotiate a new contract,” the county department of transportation said. “Until an agreement is reached, Fairfax County will continue to update Fairfax Connector customers with operating status on a regular basis.”
Passengers can receive updates by calling Fairfax Connector customer service at 703-339-7200, signing up for email or text alerts through the Fairfax Connector BusTracker or Fairfax Alerts, and following Fairfax Connector on Facebook and Twitter.
The Fairfax Connector strike throws Fairfax County’s public transit system into further turmoil, as MetroBus operators and maintenance workers contracted at WMATA’s Cinder Bed Bus Garage, which is privately operated by Transdev, in Lorton approach their 45th day on strike.
Represented by ATU Local 689, 120 Cinder Bed workers initiated the first Metro worker strike since 1978 on Oct. 24 in protest of the privatization of public transportation.
Despite driving the same routes and operating the same buses, Cinder Bed Bus Garage workers earn $12 per hour less than their colleagues who are employed directly by WMATA, and their health insurance requires a $6,000 deductible, according to ATU Local 689.
In addition to demanding the same pay and benefits as other bus drivers in the region, the Transdev workers at Cinder Bed are seeking improved safety and working conditions, such as guaranteed times for pre-trip safety inspections.
Local 689 also says that Transdev bus operators and maintenance workers at Cinder Bed have been targeted by illegal surveillance of peaceful picket actions, making it impossible to reach a fair contract for those workers.
“Cinder Bed workers are fed up with being mistreated,” ATU Local 689 president and business agent Raymond Jackson said. “…Companies like Transdev refuse to provide their workers enough money to put food on the table. WMATA needs to realize that this is the human cost of privatization.”
The Cinder Bed Bus Garage services 18 Metrobus routes. The strike has shut down 15 routes and limited three others, affecting about 8,500 commuters every day, according to DCist.
Metro general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld urged union and Transdev officials to return to the bargaining table on Oct. 29, but WMATA has not issued any official public statements since then.
“This disruption in service to our passengers is unacceptable,” Wiedefeld said. “…Both parties need to work diligently towards a collective bargaining agreement that restores service to our customers as soon as possible.”
In a letter sent to Weidefeld and WMATA board of directors chair Paul Smedberg on Nov. 20, Reps. Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer, and Jennifer Wexton criticized Metro for not getting more involved in attempting to resolve the labor dispute and called on the agency to review its decision to outsource jobs to private contractors.
When Metro awarded Transdev a contract to maintain and operate buses at its Cinder Bed Road facility on Aug. 2, 2018, the agency argued that the move was necessary to control costs without cutting service levels for customers or eliminating jobs for existing employees.
The contract was expected to add 140 new jobs and was valued at $89 million with three base years and two one-year options. It was projected to save WMATA $15 million over five years by creating management efficiencies and precluding the agency from having to pay the pension and retirement benefits required for new union-represented Metro employees.
In their letter, Connolly, Beyer, and Wexton questioned whether privatization is necessary or even financially beneficial.
“WMATA’s increased reliance on outside contractors places an increased burden on WMATA to choose its contractors wisely to ensure fair compensation of the entire WMATA workforce and ongoing safety and reliability for riders,” the legislators wrote. “The ultimate accountability for service delivery on the system lies with WMATA, and when labor relations between a contractor and its workers begin to impact service, WMATA’s refusal to engage is unsustainable.”
Negotiations between Transdev and ATU Local 689 were expected to resume on Dec. 5 or 6, according to Niya Banks, a strike captain who oversaw the union’s picket line outside the Cinder Bed facility on Dec. 2.
At that point, the striking bus operators and maintenance workers had gone 40 days without a paycheck.
Banks says that Transdev workers at Cinder Bed are sometimes forced to drive buses that have expired registration stickers and fall short of expected road standards.
For instance, buses may be equipped to only drive up to 35 miles per hour even when in a high-occupancy vehicle lane with a 65 mile-per-hour speed limit. Banks says she also has a video of a bus that was driving on the street with wires hanging out of its tires.
“As far as the customers being inconvenienced, we certainly apologize for that,” Banks said. “We definitely hope that they understand that, while this may be a fight that’s specifically at this location, this affects all working people in this region.”