They killed themselves with greed: How a strike stopped privatization in DC’s Metro

Ray Valentine describes how a scheme to cut labor costs in the DC-area transit system through privatization backfired when workers at the private subcontractor went on strike.

On October 24, 120 bus operators, mechanics, and other workers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 walked off the job at the Cinder Bed Road MetroBus garage in Lorton, Virginia, launching the first strike to hit the Washington, DC metro area’s mass transit system in more than 40 years. The strike was unplanned and small — small enough that it won’t show up in the federal government’s tally of work stoppages — and after more than two months, workers are still out with no settlement in sight. But even though the issues that provoked the dispute have not been resolved, the fight has led to major changes that have strengthened the position of workers throughout the transit system.

The buses out of Cinder Bed drive routes that are part of the Washington Metro system and the workers wear Metro uniforms, but the garage is operated by Transdev, a French multinational. The garage was outsourced as part of a long-term plan by Metro management to cut costs by contracting out as many services as possible in order to drive down labor costs. The strike began as a fairly straightforward economic conflict over wages and benefits, and the union’s ambitions going into it were modest. But on December 13, the union and Metro reached a deal that would halt further privatization and even bring some services that have already been outsourced back in-house. 

The result is a rare win for labor, but it’s not entirely clear how it happened, even to the people who won it.

Public transit and decent jobs, born in militancy

The Washington area’s public transit system is itself a product of working class struggles in the middle of the 20th century. The explosion of the federal workforce in the wake of the New Deal and World War II swelled the region’s population and left roads clogged with traffic. A plan to break the gridlock with a massive program of freeway construction was stymied by protests from the black neighborhoods slated to be demolished to make way for new roads, driving planners to contemplate a drastically expanded subway system. In the meantime, DC and its suburbs were served by privately operated city buses. The company operating these buses changed hands several times after being bankrupted by strikes in the 40s and 50s. Then a series of boycotts and civil disobedience actions against fare increases in the 1960s hobbled the bus companies and forced a public takeover. Virginia, Maryland, the District, and the federal government launched the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (which everyone calls Metro) to operate bus and rail transit in the region in the late 1960s. 

In its early days, Metro was also rocked by militancy from within. In 1978, the system failed to pay a cost of living adjustment in the midst of historically high inflation and workers responded with a wildcat strike that paralyzed the city for five days. In the wake of that strike, workers won wages that could support a family, health coverage, and a fully-funded pension. In a city defined by the deep social and economic divide between mostly white professionals administering and influencing the federal government and the mostly black service workforce feeding and cleaning up after them, Metro became a pillar of stable, dignified work for black Washingtonians without college degrees. Metro workers who came out to walk the picket line at Cinder Bed in the last few months talked at length about how their disposable income helped keep their families and neighborhoods afloat through tough economic times. They also noted that other good, blue collar jobs in the utilities, schools, and other public services have been devastated in recent decades by privatization, outsourcing, and cutbacks. 

For a generation, the gains of the 1978 strike were secure. Workers had made it clear that they were willing to defy union leadership and the law to defend their standard of living, and that they could shut down the city when they did. Metro management was unwilling to risk large-scale disruption by confronting the union head-on, at least until the last decade. A series of disasters gave management a pretext to restructure the system, and decades of labor peace meant that it wasn’t clear if the union had maintained the capacity to defend itself. 

The push for privatization

In June 2009, two Metro rail cars collided in a station during rush hour, killing eight passengers and injuring 80. In the wake of the crash, Metro turned over its leadership and invested billions in capital improvements, but the public’s confidence was shaken and ridership began to decline. In the years that followed, more incidents continued to erode the system’s reputation: trains derailed and had to be evacuated, electrical fires filled subway systems with smoke, long stretches of track were routinely shut down. The Federal Transportation Administration began directly overseeing safety in the system. Delays were routine, commuters were grumbling, and competition from rideshare apps posed a serious economic threat. A fiscal crisis loomed: more expenditure was needed to maintain or replace aging infrastructure but declining ridership meant less revenue was coming in from fares, and the general unpopularity of the system meant that the politicians responsible for it were hesitant to spend money on it. The crisis in Metro represented an ideal opportunity for disaster capitalism.  

Then in 2015, a new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, took over Metro promising to turn the system around. Part of the rather pathetically-named “Back2Good” campaign consisted of completing long-deferred maintenance on rail lines and replacing buses and rail cars that had reached the end of their service life, along with some gimmicky PR moves, like improving cell phone service in subway stations. In order to persuade the surrounding jurisdictions to fund the plan, Wiedefeld agreed to sharply limit how much operating subsidy Metro can ask governments for in the future. 

Metro had to cut somewhere, so amidst splashy announcements about Metro’s commitment to improving service, Wiedefeld launched a multi-front attack on the workforce. Management attempted to change disciplinary policies to make it easier to fire workers and limit overtime. In contract negotiations, they demanded that new hires be shifted into a 401(k) rather than the defined benefit pension. Privatization was the most promising strategy for keeping labor costs down, but the ATU contract limits the outsourcing of union work, so some of the more peripheral services within the system were privatized little by little. Shuttle buses replacing suspended subway services, custodial work in stations, installation of new equipment, construction work on station renovations, and some training were gradually contracted out. Metro workers I spoke with told me that they believed management had deliberately declined to hire qualified candidates to do these jobs permanently so that they had a pretext to contract out the jobs. Further, many believed that this contracting represented a plan to compromise the funding of Metro’s pension: as more and more people would be working in the system without paying in to it, the more precarious the pension financing would become, and management would have a pretext to propose more cuts.

In the summer of 2018, Wiedefeld escalated the offensive. Metro announced that the new Cinder Bed Metrobus garage, which was slated to open in late 2018, would be operated by Transdev. The company already operated smaller bus systems and paratransit for people with disabilities in the region, and had thoroughly alienated the union with low wages and a poor safety record. The garage would replace one that had been closed years earlier and provided service on ordinary bus routes. This was the largest private contract that the system had ever awarded and the first time since the 70s that buses would be operated and maintained by private contractors. The union had put in its own bid for the contract, but Metro had refused to consider it. Management signaled that it was “considering” privatizing other segments of the system, like the stations on the new Silver Line that will finally offer rail transit from DC to the Dulles airport. Meanwhile, more bus garages were slated for closure and replacement, raising the possibility of further contracting out of bus service. 

Rage was building in the Metro workforce, and when the union held a strike vote in July 2018 (in defiance of Metro’s charter, which prohibits strikes), more than 90% voted yes. But the strike never materialized: instead, federal arbitrators stepped in, handing down a decision that protected workers’ wages and pension benefits without addressing privatization. For the moment, the union decided to accept the compromise rather than escalate.

Workers fight back

From the beginning, privatization didn’t go as planned at Cinder Bed. In recent years, the ATU has successfully organized a number of small, privately-operated bus systems in the Washington area and they moved on the new garage quickly. Almost as soon as the garage opened in early 2019, workers voted to join Local 689, the same local that represents workers in Metro. Many of them had been union members before getting jobs at Cinder Bed, so the choice seemed natural. One driver I spoke to had been a Transdev employee in Texas, organized with the ATU, bargained, and then watched the company walk away from their contract five years after starting to operate. Organizing seemed natural, and the overwhelming majority of workers supported the union. 

There were plenty of issues to fight about. Drivers at Cinder Bed earned $12 less than their counterparts employed directly by Metro, had paltry health insurance coverage with a $6,000 deductible, and the company contributed nothing to their retirement. Workers were only guaranteed 36 hours of work a week even though most were looking for full-time schedules. Antonio, a shop steward I spoke with a number of times, said Transdev’s business model is “povertization, nor privatization.” Beyond the economic issues, drivers complained about the company’s incompetence, the condition of their buses, and widespread safety issues: buses routinely broke down on the highway, air conditioning systems didn’t function during the swampy Washington-area summers, many vehicles lacked inspection stickers, etc. A few strikers claimed that their safety supervisor had been fired from a nearby bus system after hitting and killing a pedestrian. 

But as workers so often discover, voting for the union is one thing, getting a contract is something else entirely. Negotiations dragged on for months and Transdev refused to bargain in good faith. Workers who had been at the bargaining table said that when they tried to address their healthcare costs and retirement benefits, the company talked about uniforms. As for pay, the company refused to offer more than a few cents. The workers recognized that they had reached an impasse. Ultimately, the impetus for the strike came from the rank and file: several ATU officials told me that workers were pushing for some kind of wildcat action, a sickout or a full-on strike, by the time the union decided to hold a strike vote. 

Once the strike began, bus service for an estimated 8,500 riders in Virginia was effectively shut down. Of the 18 routes operating out of Cinder Bed, only three continued operating in any form, and those have operated on an extremely unreliable Sunday schedule. Only a tiny number of workers crossed the picket line, so most buses are being operated by supervisors, who are being required to work overtime without any additional compensation. Transdev was unable to find enough unemployed people with commercial drivers licenses interested in scabbing for $20 an hour, so the company is attempting to train people to drive buses from scratch, apparently without much success. On the picket line, drivers talk about scabs getting lost and supervisors complaining to striking workers about the abuse they now have to endure from the company.  

The problem was that none of this did much to hurt Transdev: even with massive disruptions to the service the company was supposed to provide, Metro continued to pay the full fee. As workers lost their wages and health insurance, Transdev was getting paid to not run buses. The union protested at Metro HQ and the seats of most local governments, demanding that some kind of penalty be imposed, but Wiedefeld insisted that this was impossible. The contract for Cinder Bed isn’t available to the public, so it’s possible that this is true, but it’s also clear that Wiedefeld didn’t want to sanction Transdev, since doing so would represent a retreat from his privatization strategy. Transdev clearly felt very little impetus to move, offering little more than a 25 cent raise after the strike had been on for weeks and only agreeing to bargain for two days every two weeks. Workers and union officials openly questioned whether the company really wanted to hold onto the contract. “They don’t care about people who need a ride,” commented one strike leader when I asked how negotiations were going.

As the weeks wore on, the union and its allies escalated. Pressure was ratcheted up on local officials, who offered statements of support for the workers. Workers and their supporters packed the Metro board’s public meetings. Regular pickets went up at Metro HQ. Radicals within Local 689, led by retirees who had been active in the 1978 wildcat, started agitating in favor of job actions in solidarity with Cinder Bed workers. These calls appeared to get a sympathetic hearing among the workers, though nothing ever materialized. Meanwhile, activists affiliated with Jobs with Justice and the local DSA made plans for a “fare strike,” a coordinated effort to convince riders not to pay fares on a few of the Metro system’s busiest lines (importantly, MetroBus drivers rarely, if ever, stop passengers from boarding without paying their fare — I’ve been told this norm is another cultural legacy of the militant 1978 generation, though I can’t prove it). The strike also broadened: on November 30, the contract for workers in the Fairfax Connector, a smaller bus system that serves one Northern Virginia county that is also operated by Transdev, expired. 600 more workers voted to strike and walked out on December 5, although they went back to work after less than a week with the company apparently chastened.     

On December 13, there was a strange breakthrough: the union leadership and Metro management announced a new tentative agreement, albeit one that did not actually address the issues at stake in the Cinder Bed strike. The agreement concerned the ATU’s contract with Metro, and it exceeded the union’s expectations. Not only does it protect Metro workers’ healthcare and pensions and guarantee steady raises over the course of the contract, it also bars privatization of Metro and even brings services that have already been outsourced back in house. Within four years, the Cinder Bed garage will be taken over by Metro, and workers will become Metro employees with full seniority. It looks like an unequivocal win, and I couldn’t find anyone who was critical of it. Even the intransigent communist activists who had been calling for an illegal strike are more or less satisfied. The agreement was quickly approved by the union’s membership. 

Metro quickly announced that the strike was over and service would be restored soon, but Transdev hadn’t actually agreed to anything and pickets are still up outside the garage, while service is still more or less completely shut down. In the latest round of bargaining, conducted since the agreement was announced, the company has improved its offer to a 50 cent per hour raise, which the workers dismissed out of hand. Management won’t even commit to not retaliating against strikers when they return to work. An odd consequence of the union’s victory against privatization is that the company has even less incentive to settle than it did before: before, it was hoping to secure contracts worth upwards of half a billion dollars to take over core Metro services, now it has no future in the system.

“At first we just wanted a decent deal,” Antonio said. “If they had given us something this would have worked out for them. They killed themselves with greed.”

If you want to, you can try to fit this fight into a prefabricated narrative of perfidious union bureaucrats instrumentalizing and betraying workers’ struggle: this is the predictable interpretation of the World Socialist Website (who appear to have missed the fact that the strike is still on). But none of the workers I met are remotely sympathetic to this interpretation; in fact, I was almost chased off the picket line when I was mistaken for the author of the WSWS article. Cinder Bed workers are proud of winning significant gains for other members of the union and are enthusiastic about the prospect of being directly employed by Metro. That is not to say they are satisfied, and they have no interest in calling off the strike prematurely.

It’s unclear what could resolve the strike at this point, however. Workers I spoke with were unanimous that they would not go back without a deal that gives them parity with Metro employees. The union is backing them up for the moment, and given what I heard about the beginning of the strike, I doubt these workers could be forced against their will. Nobody at the picket line seems to believe Transdev will make a deal. They hope that Metro will step in and take over the garage sooner than the contract mandates.

Did privatization make it easier to organize?

As complicated as the situation at Cinder Bed is today, the achievements of the strike are impressive: 120 workers were able to turn the tide of privatization in a system that employs well over 10,000.  It’s hard to say why the strike has had as much of an impact as it has, especially in an era where strikes by tens of thousands of workers frequently end in concessionary contracts. Some particularities of the region are probably important. The robust economy of the Washington, DC area means that there are virtually no unemployed CDL-holders so scabs are hard to come by. The virtual extinction of the Republican Party in the suburbs in the last decade means that local elected officials feel the need to offer at least rhetorical support to unions. But it’s also worth thinking about the paradoxical consequences of privatization.

The whole point of privatization is to drive down labor costs, and Metro surely expected that outsourcing would weaken its workforce’s organization. But privatization may have actually made it easier to organize a strike. From a logistical standpoint, it is almost certainly easier for 120 people working together in one garage to develop the collective will to walk out than it is for 8,000 employees in the Metro bargaining unit spread over dozens of worksites across a sprawling metro area. Employees of a private contractor have a right to strike, while Metro workers are legally barred from striking and can face dismissal and massive fines if they try to. 

This is not to say that Metro workers will never strike — they have before, and they voted to in the summer of 2018. But a strike by Metro workers would be a huge logistical challenge and would require organizational support that the union might be reluctant to provide in the face of injunctions and bankruptcy. The 1978 strike was launched in defiance of union officials and depended on a robust rank-and-file activist network led by industrialized New Left activists, and it’s unclear if that infrastructure exists today. While workers in Metro have enormous potential power, there are enormous barriers to actually wielding it. Workers in smaller, outsourced units can cause major disruptions relatively easy. I suspect that Wiedefeld and the rest of Metro management expected poorly paid employees of private contractors to be docile and to be weak and isolated if they did try to bargain. The fight at Cinder Bed showed that wasn’t the case, and that privatization could be a chaotic and costly process. And for Metro, the credible threat of unpredictable unrest and disruption was enough.

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