DC transit workers criticize boss for lack of safety culture and more

Angry union members on April 27 turned their backs on and walked out of a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board meeting chanting, “Who moves this city? We move this city.”

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 attended the meeting to protest WMATA’s new sick leave policy that requires workers to give three days advanced notice before taking sick leave.

But the sick leave issue is only one of a number of grievances that has raised workers’ ire with WMATA’s management, especially its Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

Workers are angry about the lack of a safety culture at WMATA, threats to workers’ jobs caused by management’s proposal to outsource more work, proposed legislation intended to tilt the bargaining relationship in favor of management, concessionary contract demands proposed by management, and high fares and operational problems that have caused a dramatic decline in the number public transportation riders in the Washington DC area.

Earlier in the month, Wiedefeld proposed a plan to revive WMATA’s troubled bus and commuter rail service. His plan relies heavily on outsourcing union jobs and cutting workers’ benefits.

“Instead of offering real proposals to improve (Washington DC’s public transportation) system and win riders back, Wiedefeld has, once again, pitted riders against workers in an attempt to balance the agency’s budget on the backs of WMATA’s hard working employees,” reads a statement issued by Local 689 to Wiedefeld’s proposal.

Local 689 offered its own proposal for improving public transportation in a report published in March.

The report proposes new options for funding WMATA that do not include raising fares as Wiedefeld has proposed.

It takes a lot of money to maintain the commuter trains, buses, tracks, and other capital equipment required to keep the nation’s third largest public transportation system running.

But for too long, WMATA  has been underfunded, and without adequate funding, it has been difficult for the transit authority to keep its trains, buses, and rail lines in good working order.

Without well maintained vehicles and infrastructure, reliable public transportation is next to impossible.

To make the Washington area’s public transportation more reliable, Local 689 has proposed a number of ways to increase WMATA’s funding without raising fares.

One of its proposals would be to create WMATA Assessment Districts that would assess and collect fees from properties located near WMATA stations.

Businesses located close to stations have benefited from their location, and an assessment fee would return some of those benefits to WMATA and its riders.

The union proposal also calls for a less complicated fare structure that would allow transfers between rail transportation and buses.

Allowing transfers between buses and rail increased ridership in New York City by 15 percent and could do the same for DC, states the report.

The union report also talks about the need to improve the safety culture at WMATA.

The lack of safety at WMATA has caught the attention of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which oversees safety at WMATA.

Last year, FTA issued what the Washington Post called “a damning . . . report” on the lack of track safety on WMATA’s Metro rail system “that put(s) riders at risk.”

More recently, FTA in a letter to Wiedefeld noted several safety incidents that show that “WMATA has not consistently followed its own (Roadway Worker  Protection)  requirements and that unsafe practices exist that present substantial risk of death or personal injury to roadway workers.”

The letter threaten WMATA with the loss of federal funds unless it takes immediate action to resolve the safety issues.

Local 689 applauded FTA’s directive and and called on WMATA to work with the union in a labor management partnership for safety.

“If WMATA is serious about addressing its safety failures, they will engage the workforce in creating a plan and stop putting its employees and riders in danger,” said the union in its statement about FTA’s letter.

But Wiedefeld has shown little interest in working with workers or their union on safety or other issues.

In fact, he is supporting federal legislation that will weaken the union and allow WMATA to outsource more work to private contractors.

The bill entitled the Improvement Act of 2017, sponsored by John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, requires changes to the collective bargaining agreement between WMATA and Local 689 that would allow WMATA to outsource more work.

Doing so, said the union, would create more safety problems.

“Contract workers lack familiarity with Metro’s particular issues and are prone to performing substandard work,” said the union. “Local 689 members are often called upon to redo work that has been poorly done by private contractors. This is both inefficient and dangerous.”

Rep. Delaney’s proposed legislation comes at a time when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between Local 689 and WMATA have broken down.

The old contract expired last summer, but union members continue to work under its terms.

Jackie Jeter, Local 689’s president, told WTOP News that negotiations broke off because WMATA keeps saying “no” to everything the union proposes.

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