Militant Journalism

‘We move this city!’: Striking D.C. transit workers fight corporate giant and win

Transit workers from the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area reached a tentative agreement with management after a nine-day strike in the evening of August 10. While details of the agreement have not yet been made public, union members are expected to vote on whether to ratify the contract in the coming days.

On August 9, over 200 workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and a multitude of their allies and supporters rallied in front of the local’s union hall in District Heights, Maryland, where contract negotiations had resumed into their second week.

Local 689 workers drive for MetroAccess, a program in the D.C. metro area offering shared-ride, door-to-door and paratransit service for people whose disability prevents them from using bus or rail. MetroAccess is managed by Transdev, a French private-sector, billion-dollar enterprise that operates public transit globally. In the United States alone, Transdev operates in over thirty localities.

“TransDev, don’t play with our money!” was the call that rang out on the picket line as workers sang and kept spirits high on a hot and humid morning in August. Speakers blasted go-go songs such as Chuck Brown’s “We Need Some Money.”

To ATU International President John Costa, Chuck Brown’s words rang truer than ever. “We’re out here because we respect ourselves. We don’t want to have to shut it down, but we have to,” Costa told rally attendees. “We don’t want to be out here in 100-degree heat, but we want fair wages and a contract.” He also reminded workers that out of the three previous times ATU has had to strike, they have won each battle.

Speaking to Liberation News, President Costa emphasized the gravity of striking: “When you go to the table time and time again and the company keeps proposing the same offer, it becomes frustrating, it becomes really disrespectful. Striking is the last tool in the toolbox. It’s risky and it upsets people. But what else can you do when you know [Transdev] has the money. You see what kind of money they’re making and you see how better they treat the same type of workers in Europe.”

Transdev made around $127 million in profits in 2021 thanks in part to siphoning public wealth from various countries’ recovery aid distributed due to the COVID pandemic — a fact that Transdev admits themselves. Meanwhile, Local 689 workers start out working for $17 per hour, have minimal health care coverage and only two days of paid sick leave. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where a majority of Metro Access workers reside, that is well below what the cost of living requires. The Economic Policy Institute has estimated that it costs $90,824 per year to attain a “modest yet adequate” standard of living in Prince George’s, which amounts hourly to a little more than $45 per hour.

“We must still address the issue of privatization of our most vital services like paratransit,” said Local 689 President Raymond Jackson in a August 9th press release. “WMATA needs to reconsider its relationship with private contractors. It’s not working, and transit workers and riders are being left behind.”

To Costa, this is emblematic of the consistent disrespect that Transdev has shown to MetroAccess workers: “During COVID, thousands of our workers got sick. With the lack of respect given to ATU workers, it’s clear Transdev are the ones causing labor unrest.”

Organized labor from all sectors came out to support Local 689 workers on August 9, such as SEIU Local 722, Retired Transit Workers, Railroad Workers United, Brotherhood of Carpenters and the DC Nurses Association.

Liberation News spoke to Executive Director of the DC Nurses Association Ed Smith who remarked on the importance of standing with all workers who are engaged in labor struggles: “We’re out here because we support labor, we support workers who take care of people in need. That’s exactly what [MetroAccess workers] do here. They transport and care for the most vulnerable and that what we nurses do as well, so we have a direct alignment with ATU.” Smith also noted that throughout the COVID pandemic, organized labor has stood up in a historic way, stating, “The union movement is recognizing that we have to stand up and fight back.”

As Transdev negotiators shuffled into the union hall to resume bargaining, they were met with the jeers of the workers and chants to “put respect in our checks!” The fighting energy did not recede even as temperatures climbed to triple digits. After this win, it is clear MetroAccess workers will continue this struggle, not only for dignified pay and benefits, but for a transit system that doesn’t leave operators and riders at the station.

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