DC Transit Union ATU Local 689 Threatens Safety Stand-Down, Could Delay Service

DC Transit Union ATU Local 689 Threatens Safety Stand-Down, Could Delay Service
October 27, 2107
Martin Di Caro

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 brought their safety concerns to the WMATA board on Thursday.

Martin Di Caro / WAMU

Metro’s largest labor union issued a warning on Thursday to the transit authority’s leadership that employees will stop working if they encounter what the union believes to be unsafe working conditions, potentially delaying rail or bus service or halting maintenance activities. It was not immediately clear how many employees would participate, or when.

Leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 9,200 front line workers, were careful to avoid describing the threat of a “safety stand-down” as a planned job action, because transit strikes are illegal under the terms of the union’s collective bargaining agreement with WMATA.

After a string of attacks on bus drivers and other safety disputes with management, the union contends Metro is not listening to its concerns or acting quickly enough to rectify them. Metro denies the charges, saying it meets with union leaders regularly and has taken action to protect bus drivers on the most dangerous routes.

“We are finished talking. We are finished asking you to listen to us,” said ATU Local 689 president Jackie Jeter in remarks before the Metro board and general manager Paul Wiedefeld during a public meeting at WMATA headquarters.

“We have talked about safety. We have talked about what needs to be done. We have talked about the changes that need to take place,” Jeter said. “Talking about them has not saved our workers.”

Jeter addressed the board moments after another union leader attempted to read a list of names of transit workers who have died on the job, but who exceeded the two-minute time limit for public speakers at WMATA board meetings. Board chairman Jack Evans tried in vain to gavel the meeting back to order, provoking angry shouts from both union members and disability rights advocates who were in attendance to protest cuts to a popular taxicab program run by the District.

The threatened “safety stand-down” recalled an incident on the morning of Sept. 1, when drivers on Metro’s X2 bus line refused to drive unless each was given a transit police officer to ride along with them. ATU Local 689 denied that the drivers refused to do their jobs, but Metro forcefully denounced their behavior as “an unauthorized and potentially unlawful labor action” that severely delayed service.

The Sept. 1 incident happened days after passenger Opal Brown threw urine on an X2 driver as she got off the bus. She dumped the liquid over a protective plastic shield installed around the driver’s seat. The union says the shields are ineffective.

Asked if Metrorail and bus riders should expect unannounced service delays, Jeter said nothing was planned. She also sought to refute the notion that the union was organizing strikes.

“Metro uses any excuse they can to take you away from the narrative that we are working in unsafe conditions,” Jeter said.

“Whatever you want to call it, call it. We are not going to work in unsafe conditions. If I am a worker and I encounter an unsafe situation, I should have the right to take myself out of that situation until safety is procured. That is the difference between a strike and a stand-down,” Jeter added.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld said he wasn’t sure what union leaders meant when they addressed him during the board meeting.

“Obviously we are very serious about any safety concerns. We deal with them when people bring them to us, and that is what we’ll do,” Wiedefeld said, before referencing the collective bargaining agreement’s prohibition against job actions that affect passenger service.

“We also have a contract that has certain requirements in it that they need to meet,” he said. “We are working hard on the bus assault issue. We are working with the union.”

Jeter cancelled a meeting scheduled with management on Thursday to discuss bus driver safety concerns, according to a Metro spokesman.

ATU Local 689 and Metro management have been engaged in a contentious contract negotiation that reached an impasse this summer – more than a year after the previous, four-year labor deal expired. It will be up to an arbitrator to settle the ongoing dispute over wages and benefits, including management’s proposal to shift new employees from defined pensions to a 401(k) retirement plan.