Forty years ago this month, mechanics and drivers from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) engaged in a non-sanctioned, week-long strike centered on the Metro’s failure to provide a a cost-of-living pay increase of 20 cents per hour as agreed upon in a labor contract. The Washington D.C. metro area was inundated with “unusually heavy” traffic during the seven-day walkout in 1978, ending with a U.S. District Court judge ordering Metro workers to return to their jobs or face contempt-of-court citations.
Now, just one week before the 40th anniversary of the strike, thousands of workers from Metro’s largest union are set to leave their posts again as they voted Sunday to authorize a potential transit strike. The extended labor dispute is set to occur as Major League Baseball’s (MLB) All-Star Week descends on Washington and will undoubtedly grind the region’s transportation network to a screeching halt.
The strike, approved by a 94 percent margin, is being led by Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689. Although an exact date for a strike as not been given, Jeter told reporters during a Sunday night conference, “We will decide the when and where and how.” The union leader added, “We have to call a meeting of the executive board after this vote, and then we’ll decide on what we’re going to do.”
Metro workers are not authorized to strike under the system’s tri-jurisdictional government contract. Therefore, a judge could order the forcible end of a strike and hold workers in contempt-of-court and penalize those who do not submit to the judgement. In 1978, two Metro workers were held in contempt and fined $100 each.
Around 600,000 people per day are transported via the capital-area Metro system. With the massive influx of baseball fans attending All-Star Week beginning on Tuesday at National Park, home of the Washington Nationals, the stoppage would insignificantly disrupt Washington, giving gridlock an entirely new meaning.
Jeter’s labor group, which includes 8,000 of the Metro’s 12,500 active workers, commented on the potentially disastrous situation: “We understand the ramifications of what we’re asking our members, we understand what a strike would mean.”
Carroll Thomas, the union’s first vice president, bluntly stated, “If we don’t move, this region doesn’t move.”
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said via a press release, “Metro employees from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 voted to authorize a strike in direct violation of the binding, three-state Metro compact.” He added, “This action is illegal on its face, would be devastating to Northern Virginia, and must be challenged immediately.”
The speaker has called on both Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to file a motion in federal court for the preservation of the WMATA compact to, “ensure the Northern Virginia economy does not come to a standstill because of this irresponsible move.” As Virginia’s executive branch works to ensure a working transit system, it comes after multiple aggressive action from labor groups to combat a actions from Metro management.
The most recent breakdown in negotiations comes after “late-out” demonstrations occurred during the July 4 holiday week, wherein some Metro employees came to work late and delayed bus services in defiance of management’s “stalled contract negotiations, job cuts, privatization, duty reassignments, and other issues,” according to a report from The Washington Post. Local 689 has reportedly been without a contract since July 2016, with binding arbitration ordered last fall.
The union and Metro management butted heads over a three-day period in regards to a “three-day advance notice policy” used to authorize sick leave, as well as whether the system’s workers should be able to work a seventh consecutive day in exchange for double pay. Furthermore, sentiment among workers declined after management reassigned janitors from rail yards and bus garages to subway stations without consulting the union, which Jeter claimed was the “last straw” in a succession of negatively-handled workplace issues.
Chants of “Wiedefeld has got to go!” echoed through the Local 689 union hall located in Forestville, Maryland, on Sunday as the three-year reign of Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who took over the transit system in November 2015, has been marred by regular demonstrations at board meetings. Union members have continuously voiced their vehement opposition to workforce and service cuts, fare increases, and a ongoing shift towards private contractors over union workers.
Metro ridership has waned over the past few years due to chronic safety and reliability issues. Weekday ridership is down from 639,000 per week in May 2016, to 612,000 in May 2017, to just 598,000 per weekday this year in May. Currently, the weekly ridership is on the same track as it was in the early 2000s when Washington D.C. had 1.5 million less residents, showing that mismanagement, untimely service, and lapsed safety checks have cost them. The system has attempted to recur funds by cutting personnel and charging more to ride on the transit network.
The union has been circulating a petition calling for the resignation of Wiedefeld, especially after the labor dispute escalated when management threatened to discipline any workers who showed up late following the “late-out,” causing Jeter to hit back with current threats of a potential strike.
“In addition, if you make good on your threat to suspend ANYONE for three days for a single miss, ALL OF LOCAL 689 WILL BE TAKING A 3 DAY SUSPENSION,” Jeter wrote in an email to Wiedefeld and the management, according to The Washington Post.
Metro Chief Labor Relations Officer John Gilman responded to the union leader to lay out the stakes of the strike.
“The collective bargaining agreement and the Compact prohibit concerted actions by the union to disrupt the services Metro supplies to the public,” Gilman said. “We demand that Local 689 cease and desist from any further illegal action and that you immediately instruct your members to arrive on time for work and to comply with all standard operating procedures.”
“The ATU’s action threatens not only to cripple the region, but also to do significant damage to the political progress we’ve made over the last year,” Cox proclaimed.
Republicans in the Virginia legislature provided a series of measures during the 2018 General Assembly session that would restructure the financial burdens the Metro system, although Wiedefeld has claimed additional money is needed above the current funding levels to fix Metro rail systems where maintenance and repairs have been put off for decades. Additional costs given by Metro’s general manager are mitigated by providing much-needed managerial and operating reform, including a two percent cap on operating cost growth, reviews on pension obligations, new safety measures, and board oversight, legal, and organization structure review.
House Republicans, spearheaded by Speaker Cox, Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo, and Majority Whip Nick Rush have fervently stated, “We will not write a blank check to a dysfunctional organization.”