Metro employs thousands of people, has contracts with four labor union locals, has had at least five wildcat strikes since it started operating buses here five years ago, but never has had a full-time director of labor relations.
George R. Davis, president of Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose members tied the Washington area in knots with a seven-day wildcat walkout that ended Thursday, cannot remember the last time that he was out to visit the union members in one of the 18 garages and yards in the area's vast bus and subway network.
In brief, both Metro and the union that represents its transit workers have lost contact with the people that do the work. Both admit it.
The question of whether there will be another strike may be as simple as the question of whether Metro and the union move rapidly to close a breach that is several years wide.
"There problems will continue unless labor relations are examined by everybody - the membership, the union and management - and some changes are made," said Joseph A. (Chip) Yablonski. Labor attorneys Yablonski and his partner, Charles Both, were called into the Metro strike by federal District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer to serve as friends of the court.
Interviews with strikers, union officials, Metro supervisors and others familiar with the issues show that the strike took both Metro and the union by surprise, although both knew there was unrest out there.
The issue most often talked about was the refusal of Metro to pay a 20-cent-an-hour cost-of-living increase because a new contract was still under arbitration. While that may have been the excuse and is, in fact, a good issue, other problems go deeper.
Some of the issues most prominently mentioned are:
Uneven discipline. Strikers compared notes and found that there were differences in Metro's disciplinary procedures between both bus and subway operations, among garages within the bus operation and among supervisors within a garage.
Bus-rail split. But drivers and mechancis were made to feel like second-class citizens because Metro's most visible management efforts and most of the Metro board's time went into constructing and operating the glamorous new subway.
The union cannot be trusted Judge Oberdorfer, in a remarkable hearing last Saturday, found that Davis had sent out a notice to union members promising that the cost-of-living issue would be settled by July 28. It was not. Union members cite that as just one more example of a pattern of union misinformation.
Warren Jackson, who has been driving for Metro or the predecessor D.C. Transit system for 11 years, put it best.
"Right now the problem is mistrust of the union," he said. "The guys don't know what's true and what isn't. First they tell us that we were guaranteed a cost-of-living increase, then they tell us that they knew it was going to arbitration all the time . . . The union is supposed to be the buffer between us and the company. Well, the buffer broke down."
George Davis is an affable man who thinks he does his best. He points out that he was reelected without opposition to the union presidency a year ago. Some drivers point out that his most likely opponent died after a stroke one month before union nomination.
But Davis knew he was in trouble as long as two months ago, when he told a reporter, "I can't control 'em; I don't know what's going to happen."
Davis insists that he tries to represent his members. In the last year, according to union statistics, 122 grievances have been filed by union members. Seventy were settled satisfactorally. Nine went to arbitration and the union won all nine.
"We work hard at those grievances," Davis said.
On the Metro side, general manager Theodore C. Lutz began to hear the complaints about uneven discipline when he started visiting garages two months ago. It was the first time top management had been there since the public takeover.
As far as his labor relations director is concerned, Lutz said yesterday he tried. "We had a person recruited and all but hired just before negotiations began on this contract," Lutz said. "At the last minute he got a better offer. I had to move somebody who knew the issues into the negotiations." Metro's general counsel, John R. Kennedy, was given the title of acting labor relations director for the duration.
Lutz is recruiting again. "I'm looking for someone who's just as attuned to the labor relations side as to the contract negotiating side," he said.
Lutz also side that he had ordered Nicholas J. Roll, his assistant general manager for transit services, to completely survey disciplinary procedures and make sure they were even-landed.
When the strikers returned to work Thursday, a number of supervisors started handing out discipline slips, apparently against Metro instructions. That was halted, partly by the intervention of Davis.
Leroy W. Bailey, general superintendent of the bus operation, said later, "I took discipline away from the individual supervisors [for the duration of the post-strike investigation.]" A two-man team is doing all the disciplinary interviews throughout the system, Bailey said. The existing disciplinary procedure, he said in an unusually frank interview, is "antiquated."
As of yesterday, 260 Metro employes had been interviewed and 90 of those cases were disposed of, according to Metro spokesman Marilyn Dicus. Of those 90 strikers, four had been fired; 47 received suspensions of from one to five days; 10 received reprimands and 29 were exonerated. A few more initial interviews will be held, according to Metro officials. All disciplinary actions are subject to union grievance proceedings.
Bailey said that, from the interviews, he discovered "that many of our employes honestly felt it was their inherent right to get out there and picket. We have to take that into consideration."
Judge Oberdorfer found the same thing last Saturday as he suggested to both Metro and the union that they should tell employes they are forbidden by federal law from striking. By "sacrificing their right to strike," however, Oberdorfer said, they are entitled to rapid arbitration of grievances. The cost-of-living issue, under court order, will be settled next Thursday.
One of the surprising things about the strike was that much of the leadership appeared to come from the mechanics in both the bus and rail systems. Bailey said that is probably because "the most uninformed people are in maintenance. The union and the contract are geared more to operating employes . . ."
"The union, Metro, the drivers - we were all on trial last Saturday," Bailey said. "We all have to share the responsibility to see that our employe is well informed. Only a fool could not recognize that now . . ."