DC Metro and ATU 689 union bicker over who was responsible for Monday’s Orange Line mess

DC Metro and ATU 689 union bicker over who was responsible for Monday’s Orange Line mess
By Faiz Siddiqui September 19 at 6:30 AM
As Metro and its largest union prepare to enter binding arbitration after reaching an impasse over contract talks, tensions continue to escalate. The latest case-in-point: a back-and-forth between the agency and union after weekend construction problems caused Orange Line slowdowns for thousands of commuters Monday morning.

After a mobile concrete mixer broke down during weekend repairs Sunday, according to the transit agency, Metro had to call in extra workers to mix concrete by hand. Without the mobile concrete plant, the construction — renewal of the grout pads that secure the running rails on an eastern segment of the Orange Line — spilled into the morning commute. And workers had to use shovels and wheelbarrows to complete the job, according to Metro.

[Contract talks collapse between Metro and its biggest union, triggering arbitration]

The construction delays caused headaches for commuters. Metro kept the inbound track out of service for the entire morning commute, as trains single-tracked from New Carrollton to Cheverly. Trains arrived only every 16 minutes over a five-stop segment. And some wondered why the agency hadn’t completed the work during SafeTrack, when the same stretch in question was closed for nearly a month while workers performed repairs that included nearly two miles of new grout pad.

In response to questions about the issue, the transit agency blamed its own machinery:

“The equipment that failed is [Metro] equipment,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said, referring to the mobile concrete mixer that broke down. It “is not overly complex: It’s a concrete mixer affixed to a flatbed, pulled by a prime mover — basically a mixing bowl that takes on water and powdered grout.”

Monday afternoon, however, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 weighed in with its own version of events. The allegations: The weekend track work was beset by planning failures, and the delays were caused by private contractors’ “shoddy” work, the union alleged. Further, the contractors ultimately walked away before finishing the job, the union said.

“The ‘construction problems’ that Metro says caused the Orange Line delay this morning were due to the poor planning of [Metro] management, as well as privately contracted workers who walked away from their assignment before it was completed,” the union said Monday. “There are many instances where contractors do shoddy work and Metro workers have to come back to correct their mistakes; today was one of those instances.”[Orange Line construction delays cause headaches for morning commuters]

Calling the private contractors “unfit” for the job, the union used the construction delays to argue against Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposal to allow competitive bidding for some Metro projects, such as jobs on the second phase of the Silver Line.

Metro flatly denied the union’s account.

“The union’s claim is false,” Stessel said. “As a general matter, and specifically in this case, contractors are used to supplement — not replace — [Metro] employees to maximize productivity during weekend track outages. This approach is in the best interest of customers, because it means more work gets done in the limited amount of time available.”

Did contractors walk away from the job site?

“No,” Metro said.

Did contractors’ inexperience factor into the construction delays?

“No,” Metro said.

As for the union’s claim that it was brought in to fix the job, the agency said “employees and contractors” were called in overnight to hand-mix the concrete.

Pressed to provide specific evidence of the union’s claims, union spokesman David Stephen said in an email that when “the Local 689 members came to the site the contractors were not there.” He said there was likely no outside documentation to support the claim that union workers were sent in for cleanup because sending workers to job sites is “standard procedure.”

Metro argued, however, that the union’s account couldn’t be true because both union and contract workers were in the area all weekend. (The track work was scheduled for Friday night through Sunday, although the delays stretched it through Monday morning.)

Even if the machinery did break down, the union said, that would have been an insufficient explanation for a construction delay.

“Equipment breaks regularly,” Stephen said. “Mechanics are on standby for this reason. That was not the issue that [led] to the delay.”

Rather, said Stephen, because of poor planning, Metro did not load the concrete mixers sufficiently to rehabilitate the 1,000 feet of track in question. The job was split into two sections, according to Stephen: 600 feet for Metro workers and 400 feet for contractors. And Metro did not supply enough concrete for the full project, he said.

Stessel’s response: “If that were true, then you’d correct the issue and continue running the machines. In other words, why wheelbarrows and shovels? I think we’re done here.”

An email to an outside contractor believed to have supplied workers for the project was not immediately returned.