In 1974, Caroyln Stieff was 22 and training to be a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s first cohort of female bus operators when an older co-worker stopped her from entering work. He placed his foot gently on hers, she recalled, and said: “Let me tell you something. I’m going to give you this dime. You go over there to that phone booth, and you call them inside, and say that we wouldn’t let you cross the picket line.”
From that point forward, Stieff was hooked. Transit operators — led by young, mostly Black employees — bridged racial divides and three times ground the entire D.C. transit system to a halt during the 1970s, starting with the five-day 1974 strike over demands for a cost-of-living adjustment. Their efforts culminated in the 1978 Metro wildcat strike — a strike undertaken without the backing of union leadership — that shut down the system for nearly a week. They were able to secure raises and better benefits that lasted through the 1980s and 1990s, as other working-class positions around the country saw their benefits cut.
Over the past decade and a half, however, benefits have been rolled back for new hires, union members say, and municipalities in the region have added private bus lines that operate on separate contracts and offer lower pay and fewer benefits. To address these inequalities, employees are beginning to resort to an old tool: the strike.
On Tuesday, D.C. Circulator bus drivers began a strike after negotiations between the Amalgamated Transit Union and RATP Dev, which owns the Circulator, fell apart. The strike continued Wednesday, leaving riders scrambling to find other modes of transportation.
This Circulator strike follows a similar labor action in 2019, when workers at Metro’s Cinder Bed Road bus garage in Lorton went on strike to protest what they saw as unequal treatment between WMATA workers and people working for their employer, the private contractor Transdev. It was the first strike on D.C. transit since 1978.
“We had to always be strike-ready,” said Ron Majors, a retired bus operator who joined WMATA two years after the 1978 strike and believes its legacy kept management on its toes and the unions’ negotiating position strong.
WMATA was expanding rapidly at the time. It had acquired four private bus lines in 1973, and Metrorail opened in 1976. With a spate of older drivers retiring, the system was hiring aggressively.
“Starting around 1978, there was a net increase in the number of people using transit in the Washington area. That you had not seen for decades,” said Zachary M. Schrag, author of “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.”
It was not until 1955 that D.C. transit began to hire Black bus operators. By the 1970s, the majority of new hires were Black, and an increasing number were women.
With progress came pushback. Stieff, who is Black, recalls the threats of sexual violence that she faced. Once, when she was driving her K Street route, she remembered, a man told her, “I’m going to get my son to come up here and rape and rob you, because you shouldn’t be driving no bus. No way! You should be home with your husband.”
On May 17, 1978, a bus operator was dragged from her bus into Fort Dupont Park and raped. The next day, her supervisor refused to allow her to call in sick. “He told her that’s what goes with the job,” said James Daniels, a young bus operator at the time. “And that’s when everybody said, ‘Nah, nah, you all have gone too far.’”
Talk of a strike began. In the absence of cellphones, operators went to the locations around the city where they could catch colleagues who were switching buses. “Once the situation was explained, [operators] said, ‘Yeah, I’m down,’” said Craig Simpson, who recalled standing on 14th or 16th Street NW to spread the word.
Soon, all the city’s bus lines were either closed or running on significantly reduced schedules. The strike lasted only a day, but it helped spur WMATA to install silent alarms on buses so operators could call for help.
Later that summer, contract negotiations were not going well. Operators had missed out on a cost-of-living adjustment two years earlier, and a group of young drivers were determined to make sure it would not happen again. To organize, they would have to overcome racial divisions.
“Metro was running it like a plantation, basically, because all the White people was up top,” said Daniels, who grew up on the Black side of a segregated South Carolina town. “The Black people was on the bottom. And the young White people, they had long hair. [Senior White operators and management] would tell them, ‘You go over there with them [Black operators].’”
The coalition of Black and young White drivers challenged union leadership in a series of contentious meetings over the summer of 1978. Because the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act prohibited federal employees from striking, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 president George Davis could have faced heavy penalties if he was seen as encouraging them, and tension between union leadership and rank-and-file members grew.
So did the size of meetings. On July 18, 400 workers crowded into the union hall for a regular meeting that was usually attended by 50 to 100 people. “The place was in an uproar,” said Sandra Perin, who had participated in the Black Panther Party’s school breakfast program while a student at Howard University before joining WMATA’s clerical staff. “[Davis] said, ‘If you don’t go to work, they’ll lock me up.’ And then some bus driver behind me said, ‘How much is your bail?'” Davis marched out of the meeting.
The next day, maintenance workers and a small number of operators didn’t report to work. A large meeting was held that night at RFK Stadium, where picket lines were planned and organized. On July 20, the workers shut the whole system down.
For six days, the Metrobus and Metrorail remained closed. During this time, 23 workers were fired. The strike began to unravel when workers on the Arlington bus lines went back to work, and management was able to get the trains running.
The operators got their cost-of-living adjustment, a court injunction forced WMATA to reinstate the fired operators, and commuters were able to ride the bus and train again, as traffic returned to normal levels.
Not everyone was happy, however. The Washington Post’s coverage of the strike focused mostly on the inconvenience for commuters, angering the strikers. Two days after the strike began, the paper ran an editorial calling the strike leaders “power-hungry hotheads.”
One difference between 1978 and today is a change in public sentiment. In the late 1970s, support for labor unions was on the decline; today it is on the rise. A September Gallup Poll found that 68 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of labor unions, up from 55 percent in 1979.
Michael Haack is a freelance writer in Washington. He collected the oral histories of participants in the 1978 WMATA wildcat strike, which can be found through the D.C. Public Library. Quotes in this story are taken from the collection.