Image by Ben R licensed under Creative Commons.

Metro’s largest employee union voted Sunday evening to allow its leadership to call a strike, setting up a potential showdown with the transit agency. While it’s unclear if or when one would take place, the action highlights the collapse in relations between the union and Metro’s top management.

Jackie Jeter, president of Metro’s union ATU Local 689, said Sunday evening that of the “thousands” of employees who voted in three “emergency strike vote” meetings, 94% voted to authorize the union leadership to call a strike. If such a strike happened, employees who operate trains, staff Metrorail stations, and run buses could skip work and essentially grind the transit agency’s operations to a halt.

Jeter said the union’s leadership could meet as early as this week to decide how to proceed.

Approximately 650,000 trips per day are taken on Metrorail during the week, and around 400,000 on Metrobus. Local 689 employees are not legally allowed to strike or interrupt service, according to their contract with Metro.

The working relationship between Metro and Local 689’s employees is defined in a document called the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which stipulates things like how employees get to pick shifts, breaks, time off, and more. The CBA expired in June 2016, and the two parties have been in negotiations for a new agreement since. 689 declared that talks had failed back in September 2017 which meant that the dispute over the contract would go to a three-member arbitration panel to decide. That decision is expected sometime later this year.

Metro and the union have a number of issues in dispute, and tensions between the two have grown steadily over the past three years. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld wants to shift newly-hired employees from a pension plan to a retirement plan that more resembles to a 401(k), which could be less generous. The union more recently alleges that Metro violated the CBA by re-assigning where some janitors work within the rail system and giving jobs to contractors.

Metro sued the union last year, arguing that it should be able to pay workers so that they don’t end up working a seventh consecutive day, “in the name of safety.” An arbitrator had earlier determined that workers are allowed to do so and would be eligible to earn double overtime pay.

The potential for a strike comes the week that the Major League Baseball All-Star game is being held in DC at Nationals Park. Metro is scheduled to stay open an hour later than usual on Monday and Tuesday for the game, as well as the Home Run Derby. A 45-day shutdown of the Red Line between NoMa-Gallaudet and Fort Totten also starts on Saturday, July 21. Jeter told reporters that the Red Line disruption would cause union members to miss meal breaks or be given assignments in different locations.

689 released a statement on July 12 calling for Wiedefeld’s removal as GM/CEO of Metro: “Neither the riding public nor the committed employees of Metro have any confidence in the leadership’s ability to guide our ship.” The union statement goes on to claim Metro management violated the CBA, changed policies without prior notice, and scheduled trackwork and maintenance that didn’t “accommodate the needs of passengers.”

“We’re in a fight for our lives,” Jeter can be heard telling members in a recorded message purportedly sent to union members earlier on Saturday. “Stand up for your rights, and we will win this fight,” she continues.

The threat of a strike initially surfaced in a response from Jeter to the General Manager after approximately 500 of the union’s members intentionally arrived late to work on July 12, a sign the union said was the employees showing their discontent with agency management. Some took a similar action the prior week, reporting late on July 4.

In response, Wiedefeld threatened “progressive discipline up to, and including, termination.” Jeter’s response stated that “ALL OF LOCAL 689” would take a three-day suspension if a single employee were suspended for a single missed day.

Impacts on the DC region would be significant in the case that both Metrorail and Metrobus go on strike. Uber capped its surge pricing at 3.9 times the usual rates during a one-day shutdown declared by Wiedefeld in 2016 due to potentially-fatal safety concerns. Traffic jams and slow commutes were the norm for those that drove. If Metrobus operators are off the streets as well, those impacts could be expected to be even worse.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.