Washington, DC “Circulator” bus drivers win right to refuse to drive unsafe buses

WASHINGTON (PAI) – In a big win for 189 drivers, the new 3-year contract between Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 and First Transit, the private contractor that operates the popular D.C. Circulator buses, gives the drivers eventual pay parity with their Metrobus colleagues and the right to refuse to drive unsafe vehicles.

The pact, ratified by the DC Circulator operators the weekend of May 20-22, will after eight years give them a top pay rate of $31 an hour, on a par with Metrobus drivers, whose top rate is $34. It also triples the company contribution to the Circulator operators’ 401(k) plans, Local 1764 administrator Sesil Rubain said. The new contract is retroactive to April 1.

And it not only gives the Circulator drivers the right to refuse to drive unsafe buses, but orders Circulator to pull them off the road for repairs when drivers identify problems.

“Under the new agreement, First Transit will not force employees to drive buses that are not in safe operating condition and will remove vehicles from service until they can be properly inspected and fixed,” said ATU spokesman Todd Brogan.

“This is good for drivers who had to choose between their livelihoods and their lives each time they boarded a bus they knew wasn’t adequately maintained. It’s also great for riders, who now have an ally on every bus who can advocate for vehicle safety without fear of retaliation.”

The wage hike came after ATU publicized the high turnover among Circulator drivers, due to poverty-level wages in the high-cost D.C. area – and after the D.C. auditor reported that up to 95 percent of tested Circulator buses had safety problems. The drivers staged several rallies over the issues of low pay and unsafe buses.

“Poverty wages were leading to high employee turnover, and high turnover was transforming the Circulator from a premium bus service into a District-subsidized training ground for other local transit systems that better provide the economic security transit workers,” Brogan explained. “Like all of us, they need to live in this expensive region.”

There is one catch to the contract, though: The District government has to add $3 million to its Circulator payments, and the city’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year envisions only a $1 million increase to pay for raises for the drivers.

“We need to improve the employee retention,” District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo told the city council earlier this year. “We want to have good, loyal operators who are happy and safe doing what they are doing because that just means our customers are going to get a higher quality of service.”

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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.