Metro's bus and rail employes are angry at both Metro and their unions, and the taxpayers are paying for it.
"We're complaining that Metro doesn't listen to our suggestions, that they don't involve us in decisions that affect how we do our jobs, and that when something goes wrong, the union, which is supposed to stand up for us, doesn't represent us very well," said a 30-year-old father of two, a bus driver for three years who works at Metro's northern division.
"We're not children," said a driver at the Bladensburg division in Northeast Washington. "We need supervisors who understand that sometimes we have family problems and need some time off or that we have to stay home to take care of the kids while the wife is sick."
Labor relations problems, according to both Metro and union officials, are costing the system and taxpayers money in ways unrelated to salary. Absenteeism is high -- 6.64 percent in the 1978 fiscal year, 8.78 percent in 1979 and 7.50 percent in July, August and September, the first quarter of this fiscal year.
Workers compensation costs are $1 million higher than last year and, at $8 million, are twice what they were in 1978. Only about one-third of that cost goes for medical payments. The rest covers time off due to injuries.
Nearly two years after illegal strikes in 1978 -- one of which forced thousands of commuters into their autos or stranded them for seven days during a heat wave -- unrest among Metro's bus and rail employes still festers. They say that labor and working conditions that caused the wildcat strikes have changed very little.
These conditions exist, Metro employes say, at a time when 4,800 Metro bus and rail workers must elect officers of their union, Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Workers. Metro's management policies, and the way the union deals with them, are issues in a campaign that has forced incumbent union leaders into runoff elections this Wednesday for a variety of posts.
The union's president since 1974, George Davis, faced six opponents in this year's general election, half of them Metro employes for less than four years. In 1974 and 1977, Davis was unopposed for the presidency.
Last Wednesday's election produced no clear winner in the presidential race, forcing Davis into a runoff this week against Charles Boswell, a bus driver in the Arlington division.
The failure of union leaders to win a simple majority in the election is an indication that the members are dissatisfied with their leaders and are willing to gamble on new leadership even at a crucial time of contract negotiations, scheduled to bring in February. Except for Davis, none of the candidates for president had ever held a union office.
According to drivers and union officials, Metro's employes today are more aggressive, younger and better educated. They are younger men and women (the average age is roughly 28 to 30) and they are impatient for changes.
"These are different times, man," said a 38-year-old driver.
Like most of the others interviewed, he asked not to be identified. "We changed in the '60s. The old union leadership and Metro's managers, some of the same guys who came to Metro from the D.C. Transit system, don't realize that."
"Were not illiterates. Many of us hold bachelor's, master's and Ph.D degrees," said the driver, who hopes to complete a degree in accounting and finance at Bowie State College this year.
"Some of these guys around here sell real estate, a few of them own variety stores, and sell insurance," he said, gesturing around the bus drivers' lounge. "This is a different generation. My father might have swallowed his pride and taken this petty stuff, but we say, "Hell no, let's fight this thing."
City Council member Rev. Jerry Moore (R-at large) a past chairman of Metro's board of directors who was active in earlier Metro labor negotiations, said he has heard many complaints from drivers about the way that lower-level managers and supervisors carry out Metro operating procedures and personnel policies.
"The problem is that these guys can read (directives and labor contracts) just like the supervisors can," Moore said. "They can read and find out that these policies are not being implemented the way they should, and this is what brings out the friction."
Drivers say that frustration with Metro also affects the way they treat their passengers. Moore said he sometimes gets complaints from passengers that buses do not meet their schedules. Most often, however, he hears about rowdy youths disturbing passengers.
"How do you think a person should feel when his supervisor writes him up for being five minutes late after being in a traffic jam?" asked one driver who did not want to be identified. A driver for six years with two years of college education toward a business administration degree, he typifies the younger, more aggressive and better educated bus driver, the kind of person who increasingly is becoming the backbone of Metro's bus system.
Northern Division bus driver Craig Simpson said, "It took a wildcat strike to get the union to take a position on the safety issues, like bus radios, that we were concerned about.
"Metro had installed the radios on buses about a year before the strike," he said. "Operators had complained and nothing was done until the operators decided to go on strike after a female operator (driver) was assaulted.
"There are other things that the union should have been more aggressive on, safety issues like slick tires, mirrors and fareboxes that obscure our view and create blind spots, slack brakes and so on," Simpson said.
"We have the right to refuse to drive buses that are in bad condition, but the union does not enforce that."
The 38-year-old driver, sitting next to Simpson, said, "I have turned buses into the shop with slack brakes and gotten the same bus back the next week with the same problem."
Metro officials say these complaints are not new. They say repairs are made satisfactorily when brought to their attention, that the equipment they use meets industry standards, and that it is the driver's responsibility to alert Metro of mechanical defects.
Metro officials also said that the union has told them of many of the drivers' complaints and that some of the complaints, especially dealing with safety features, now are being worked out.
Union officials acknowledge that part of the members' unrest is a result of poor communication. Davis said the union's shop stewards should have done a better job of describing the union's efforts to members, a charge that some shop stewards denied. They said the union's leaders have kept them in the dark.
The result of Metro's management problem is higher costs for the system and for taxpayers when top officials in both Prince George's and Fairfax counties have talked openly about leaving the Metro system because of its increasing subsidy requirements, expected to reach $109 milllion in fiscal year 1981.
Workers' compensation claims are the third highest escalators of Metro's annual budget, behind general inflation and quarterly cost of living increases to employes, officials said.
Clearly, not all Metro employes set out to abuse the workers' compensation program. But some interviewed said that filing claims was a way to get back at the system.
"There's no other way you can get back at Metro," said another driver. "They can replace you just like that (he snapped his fingers). . . You can go out on a winter's day, slide on ice in a bus with poor tread and the next day Metro charges you with the accident and you lose your job. That's why every chance they get, some guys go out on disability (workers compensation)."
Employes who are out of work on workers' compensation can draw two-thirds of their salaries tax free. The beginning salary is about $20,000 for bus operators, who can earn as much as $30,000 working overtime. "At the present rate, we will have 3,000 claims this year," said Douglas Eger, Metro's assistant director of claims. "We only have 6,500 employes. About half of them are bus operators, but 80 percent of the claims come from bus operators. Last year, the average claim cost about $2,500, (and) the employe was out an average of three weeks, usually for back injuries.
"The system is open for abuse," Eger said.
I can recall one instance in which a bus was rammed by a Volkswagen and the driver filled for back injuries," Eger said. "A lot of guys filed claims for re-injuring their backs after driving over potholes. The law places the burden on us to prove almost beyond a reasonable doubt that the accident didn't happen."
Employes said conditions would improve if supervisors showed understanding and sensitivity.
Metro General Manager Richard S. Page said he is not satisfied with the progress of Metro's labor relations office in dealing with labor problems. "I think we need to improve our supervisors and managers to do a better job of managing our employees," he said. I'm talking partly about racial attitudes and attitudes about sex.
"The solution is tough," said Page, who has been in the job since May. "It requires some money, some changes in practice, and it may require some changes in key personnel."
The 1978 strikes found Metro without a full-time labor relations director. Since then, Metro has assigned William C. Leonard to direct labor relations.
Page said the labor relations office does not have the clout it needs. "The director (Leonard) is not satisfied with the progress there and I'm not either," he said.
Page said there is one relatively new supervisor at Metro who already has become somewhat of a legend. Everywhere he is assigned, absenteeism and disability claims decrease.
"He does something right," Page said. "We've got to find out what that is and have everybody else do it."