Fairfax Connector workers will not have to walk off the job for the second time in three months after the Amalgamated Transit Union announced on Feb. 23 that it had reached a tentative agreement with Transdev, the international company that operates Fairfax County’s public bus system.
The report of a new labor contract for ATU Local 1764, which represents approximately 600 Fairfax Connector bus drivers and maintenance workers, was a welcome reversal of events, coming only a few days after the union warned that a strike might be necessary with the two parties struggling to resolve their differences.
Transdev confirmed on Feb. 24 that it had reached a “fair and equitable agreement” with ATU, whose members are scheduled to vote on whether to ratify the proposed collective bargaining agreement on Feb. 29.
The tentative agreement includes improvements to employees’ healthcare benefits as well as “substantial” wage increases, according to ATU.
“We are happy to report that we have reached a tentative agreement with Transdev that recognizes the hard work and commitment of our more than 600 bus drivers and maintenance workers at Fairfax Connector,” ATU International President John Costa said. “I am proud of these workers and the solidarity, resolve and unity that they have shown…which was critical to securing the fair and just contract that they deserve.”
The agreement offers a resolution to a months-long battle between Fairfax Connector workers and Transdev, which took over the transit system on July 1, 2019 under a five-year contract with Fairfax County.
ATU Local 1764 members voted on Nov. 9 to authorize a strike if the union and contractor failed to settle on a new labor contract to replace the existing agreement that expired on Nov. 30.
Hundreds of Connector workers walked off the job on Dec. 5 after union negotiators reported little progress in their demands regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Though it lasted just three days before county officials helped the union and contractor negotiate a back-to-work agreement on Dec. 8, the strike had a major impact on travel throughout Fairfax County, forcing the Connector to significantly reduce service for its usual 91 routes that typically transport roughly 30,000 passengers every day.
The Fairfax Connector walkout coincided with a strike staged by Metro employees at the Cinder Bed Bus Garage owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and operated by Transdev.
Represented by ATU Local 689, the 120 Cinder Bed workers went on strike on Oct. 24 both to demand better pay, benefits, and working conditions from Transdev and to protest WMATA’s decision to hire a private contractor to operate and maintain the facility.
Lasting 84 days to become the longest transit labor action in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region’s history, the strike ultimately secured not only a Transdev contract that union members approved on Jan. 16, but also a new four-year labor agreement with WMATA, which promised to bring Cinder Bed work in-house and to not contract out work on its Silver Line extension.
Approved by ATU Local 689 members on Dec. 19 and the WMATA board of directors on Dec. 20, the contract also includes wage increases and establishes incentives for workers based on ridership growth. It will take effect after the two parties’ current agreement ends on June 30.
Like their Metro counterparts, Fairfax Connector workers have criticized moves to privatize public transit services, accusing Transdev of winning contracts by cutting maintenance and labor costs and of engaging in unfair labor practices.
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating Transdev for more than 40 allegations of federal labor law violations related to negotiations with Local 1764, according to ATU.
Former ATU Local 1764 vice president Vance Young, who has worked at the Connector for more than 10 years, told reporters at a press conference on Feb. 20 that he commutes 45 minutes to get to work and that drivers are forced to sometimes operate poorly maintained buses.
Rachid Mhamdi, a father of two who has been a Fairfax Connector bus driver for 15 years, said that he is concerned about being able to pay for his children’s education and medical needs and generally support his family in an area with a high cost of living.
According to ATU field mobilization specialist John Ertl, two-thirds of the Fairfax Connector’s drivers have no retirement savings, because they do not have a pension plan under their current labor contract and receive 401(k) funds on a matching basis.
Union representatives also expressed frustration at what they called a lack of movement from Transdev after they reportedly made some concessions in the hopes of getting provisions that would standardize healthcare costs and other benefits for all workers.
“Our members want nothing more than a fair deal,” Ertl said on Feb. 20. “What we are fighting for is quality, affordable health care and reasonable work rules. We want a deal that our members can live with, so that our members can live in the region in which they serve the customers here.”
Unlike WMATA, Fairfax County has not made any public commitments regarding whether it will continue using a private operator for the Connector after Transdev’s contract ends, but local elected officials were generally supportive of workers’ efforts to secure a fair contract, attending rallies and stepping in to help end the four-day strike in December.
Sharon Bulova, who chaired the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at the time, told The Washington Post on Dec. 5 that she was planning to call a special board meeting to discuss options for pressuring Transdev to come to an agreement with Connector employees.
The county’s contract with Transdev includes a provision that lets it fine the contractor $25,000 in damages for each day service levels are reduced due a work stoppage.
Current Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay celebrated the news that Transdev had reached an agreement with Fairfax Connector workers on Feb. 23.
“There’s an agreement in place!” McKay tweeted. “ATU and Transdev signed a contract that will improve wages and benefits. I’m glad I could help facilitate the negotiations. Thank you to all for working hard during this time to keep our buses running.”