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Transit workers in the greater Washington, D.C., area agreed to hold a negotiating session on July 17, backing off for now on a strike threat that could cripple mass transit the same day the nation’s capital plays host to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
It’s just as well because the optics are lousy, one observer told Bloomberg Law.
A strike would make both sides look bad, and they both know that, Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, said July 16.
Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 voted over the weekend to authorize a strike, without setting a date, but then agreed to participate in a July 17 bargaining session. The union didn’t say what time the meeting will occur, but it tweeted that it will report back to members in the afternoon. The game begins at 8 p.m.
“It is not our intention to disrupt the MLB All-Star game, and we would hope that WMATA shares our desire to talk in good faith and will not to use this meeting as a stop gap to get through the big day,” the union said in a statement July 16.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority issued a statement saying it doesn’t want customers to be punished by a work stoppage.
“Dialogue is ongoing between Management and Union officials to identify common ground on these matters, while keeping Metro safe, reliable and affordable for the region,” the statement said.
WMATA didn’t provide further comment.
Riders depend on public transit services every day, so union members “have plenty of leverage” without striking on game day, Schurman said. The union could build goodwill by not striking on the day of a major event without giving up a strategic advantage, she said.
Union leaders said in a post on Local 689’s Twitter feed that the transit authority is bargaining in bad faith over a new labor contract to replace one that expired June 30, 2016. The contract is still in place for the moment as an arbitration panel considers both sides’ arguments.
Metro’s statement said the region’s share of costs for bus and rail operations has grown about 8 percent a year at a time when revenues have been flat.
“Add to this the $2.8 billion in unfunded pension and health benefits for future retirees, and the Authority’s financial structure is not sustainable,” the transit authority said.
WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is trying to increase revenue for the system “through better service while reducing cost growth by operating more efficiently. The plan would protect current employees, preserving their jobs and their pensions,” the transit authority said.
The contract that was set to expire in June 2016 includes language stating that it remains in effect until it is replaced by another agreement or terminated by either party. Strikes are barred by the contract.
“Striking is not a decision that workers take lightly. It means forfeiting paychecks and risking legal penalties,” Joseph McCartin, a professor at Georgetown University and executive director of the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, told Bloomberg Law.
But McCartin said he wouldn’t rule out a strike by the local.
Tensions between Metro and the ATU local “have seemed to grow along with service cutbacks and the shifting of jobs to private contractors” since Wiedefeld became Metro’s general manager in 2015, McCartin said.
The union called for Wiedefeld to step down in a petition issued July 12, saying in an accompanying statement that local members are “are fed up with the disrespect from the WMATA General Manager to workers and riders.”
It’s notable that union leaders are talking more about the general issue of respect than about specific issues, said Schurman, a former transit union local leader who also has represented management in public-sector labor disputes.
Wages and benefits usually are the two most important issues for union members, Schurman said. “Number three is almost always respect from employers,” she said.
“That really, really angers the workforce” when respect is missing, Schurman said. Labor disputes usually are “about terms and conditions, but there’s also often an underlying feeling that employees are not being valued and respected,” she said.
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