Union Workers Can Help Metro to Make Ends Meet

Thursday, March 12, 2009

ONE OF THE FEW bright spots of the recession is the continued popularity of mass transit. Even with gasoline prices down, commuters are flocking to rail lines and buses; the last time nationwide ridership was this high, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Local transit agencies, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, are shuttling more and more riders, yet budget cuts brought by the economic downturn threaten to mar the experience of Metro converts. Agency officials have explored creative ways to close the gap; union leaders also need to contribute to a solution.

The WMATA Board of Directors today will discuss how to close a remaining $29 million deficit in this year's $1.9 billion budget. Officials will consider a proposal that would avert possible service cuts, such as reducing service for those with disabilities and charging for weekend parking, by tapping $200 million the agency received in stimulus money. There's concern that doing so would delay hard decisions and worsen potential budget deficits in coming years. Either way, in plugging a budget hole that was originally $154 million, officials have used up most of the possible one-time fixes.

There's still, however, one area where Metro could find significant savings: the contracts of union employees. Metro officials and union leaders were unable to agree to terms after the previous three-year contract expired last summer. Officials wouldn't disclose the parameters of the contract offer, but sources familiar with the negotiations say union leaders rejected what amounted to a modest pay increase, triggering binding arbitration. A three-person panel of arbiters is hearing arguments from both sides.

Meanwhile, union employees continue to work under the terms of the expired contract, which provided generous pay increases; the arbiters' decision will be applied retroactively. Metro officials have had to craft their fiscal 2009 and 2010 budgets based on assumptions about what the arbiters will decide. If they guessed too high, Metro will get a windfall; too low, and officials will have to scramble to find extra funds.

County employees in many Washington area jurisdictions have agreed to forgo much of their scheduled pay increases. At a time when many in the region feel fortunate to have jobs, Metro's union leaders could end the uncertainty, and avoid risking an unfavorable arbitration decision, by doing the same.

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