D.C. area bus systems share one characteristic—mistreating workers
ATU Local 1777 says “Bargain in good faith.” | ATU

WASHINGTON—The Washington, D.C., metro area has multiple bus systems, ranging from Metro, the largest and the only one that has routes in D.C. and all its suburbs, to Maryland MTA commuter buses that run from downtown D.C., to Columbia, Annapolis, and sometimes points east. But all those systems, with the possible exception of the MTA, seem to have one common characteristic: mistreating their workers.

Otherwise, how do you explain all this reported by the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose locals represent the tens of thousands of bus drivers, mechanics, and support staff:

On Sept. 3, 16 Montgomery County, Md., officials, including 13 state legislators, jointly asked the Metro board to review – and if necessary, yank – its new contract with Challenger, the private firm that runs MetroAccess, the operator of minibuses and vans for the disabled and elderly metro-area-wide. Riders repeatedly complain about MetroAccess’s service, or lack of it.

ATU 1777 bargaining unit. | ATU

Challenger mistreats its 190 MetroAccess workers so badly that they previously authorized their local, ATU 1777, to call a strike. The week before the lawmakers’ letter, the workers started informational picketing at MetroAccess’s Gaithersburg, Md., bus garage.

One of the letter’s signers who visited the picket line, State Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Kensington, told the pickets: “My sister is disabled. If she gets picked up, I want her to know she has a fully-vetted person picking her up…who is making a living wage and will take care of her. I’m proud to stand with you and proud to stand with ATU.”

Key issues: MetroAccess’s owner’s bargaining stall until he gets a chance to try to decertify the local, low wages of $12 hourly in a very high-cost area, company reliance on overtime and part-timers, poor healthcare benefits which cost up to $2,500 monthly, and lack of respect.

Challenger’s prior record was so bad that it lost the MetroAccess contract in 2014 after holding it for 14 years. It got it back last year with the lowest bid. Bargaining resumed just after Labor Day; strike preparations did, too.

Across the Potomac River, in Lorton, Va., Metro contracted out Virginia bus routes to yet another private operator, TransDev. The result says ATU Local 689: Low pay, terrible working conditions, and an August 23 unanimous strike authorization vote at TransDev’s Cinder Bed Road garage. The TransDev workers, whose parent firm is French-owned, are often forced to drive at least 10 hours straight with no bathroom or meal breaks. Many Metrobus drivers work split four-hour shifts, with four between.

The TransDev Metrobus drivers “are demanding they receive the same pay and benefits other regional bus operators make,” Local 689 says. They “drive the same routes, on the same roads, with the same buses as WMATA (Metrobus), but they EARN $12 per hour less than other operators in the region just because they work for a private contractor.”

“Workers are also demanding improvements to safety and working conditions, including guaranteed times for pre-trip safety inspections.” TransDev restricted the vote to a 12-hour “window” when many drivers were off. But more than 80% voted and many drove to the garage to cast their ballots, Local 689 said.

The strike authorization came just a day after dangerous fumes on a TransDev-owned Metrobus sent one operator to the hospital with chest pains, disorientation and headaches and sickened passengers. The bus was taken back to the garage and when another operator said his bus had broken down, the supervisors assigned the fume-ridden bus to him – without telling him about the illnesses! That operator and his passengers got nauseous.

“The fact that they (TransDev) reassigned this broken, dangerous bus within the same day shows the company prioritizes cost-cutting over the safety of their workers and riders,” Local 689 said. Conditions are so bad at TransDev the workers are now keeping their own bus condition reports, since supervisors are apparently glossing over problems.

“This strike authorization vote represents the fourth approved strike authorization in the D.C. region since May. Transit workers are fed up with being used as pawns for austerity-minded politicians that want to ‘cut costs’ on the backs of workers and riders,” Local 689 said. The other votes were at Omni Ride of Prince William County, Va., and DASH, of Alexandria, Va., whose workers went union in July for the first time in DASH’s 35-year history.

ATU 689 demonstration. | ATU via Facebook

“The workers at Cinder Bed have stood together for almost a year to fight Transdev and WMATA to make sure they’re treated with respect,” Local President Raymond Jackson said.

“This vote should serve as a warning to every transit authority and private contractor in the area that workers are fed up with schemes to profit off the low wages of transit workers. Transdev and WMATA cut corners at every turn with the Cinder Bed Facility, but these workers won’t let them!”

Then there’s Metro itself, the biggest contract of them all. It comes up for renewal next year – with a Metro board in chaos and a subway system that just went through years of repairs. Metrobus is considered the “poor cousin” of the subway. On the subway, maintenance was neglected for decades until fatal accidents occurred.

ATU Local 689 spent two and a half days in June in strike training for officers, stewards, and other leaders, Jackson said. “We believe this upcoming contract will determine the fate of public transportation and economic justice for our entire region,” the local said, since many D.C. area middle- and lower-income residents depend on mass transit, especially Metrobus.

Training “focused on making a detailed analysis of WMATA’s all-out assault on our pensions, our jobs, titles, our livelihood, and dignity. Training sessions also focused on our responsibility to ally with transit riders to lower fares and expand service.”



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.