The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For striking Metrobus workers, the fight for more rights and better pay outweighs the financial hardship

Striking Metrobus operator Winston Nichols speaks at a rally at Metro headquarters on Nov. 6 in Washington.
Striking Metrobus operator Winston Nichols speaks at a rally at Metro headquarters on Nov. 6 in Washington. (Justin George/The Washington Post)
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As Thanksgiving approaches, the striking workers at Metro’s Cinder Bed Road bus garage have missed two paychecks.

Instead of preparing for the holidays, many have had to turn to others for essentials such as money for gas or to cover rent. In fact, the top request for help from a strike hardship fund is for money to pay back family members, an organizer with Amalgamated Transit Union said.

The nearly 130 bus operators, mechanics and utility workers walked off the job Oct. 24 in a contract dispute with Transdev, a France-based multinational transit company contracted by Metro to run the facility in Lorton two years ago. The workers are seeking better pay and benefits — comparable to those of Metrobus workers employed by Metro, who do the same job but can make about $12 an hour more based on years of service, according to the union.

The work stoppage threatens to spread to the Fairfax Connector, which also contracts with Transdev, and transports an estimated 30,000 riders on an average weekday. Those workers’ contract expires Saturday.

The protracted labor fight reveals the dilemma with privatizing public services. Metro, facing rising operating costs, turned to outsourcing as a way to save money. Contract workers, meanwhile, soon realized they were doing the same job as better compensated Metro employees. The result is the first Metro strike in four decades.

Last week, about 100 union members and supporters packed a Metro board meeting, calling on Metro leaders to rescind Transdev’s contract. Protesters briefly stopped the meeting, jumping out onto the floor with an “Equal Work = Equal Pay” banner before Metro staff members and security shoved the group into the hall.

Union members said they have picketed the home of Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg and plan to increase public demonstrations.

Stalled talks between union and Metrobus contractor to restart

Contentious contract talks for the Cinder Bed Road garage workers stopped for nearly two weeks before a federal mediator restarted them Wednesday. No progress has been reported.

“[The union] and Transdev remain very far from an agreement on wages, benefits, and everything in between,” ATU Local 689 President Ray Jackson said Saturday.

Transdev said in a statement that it “continues to bargain in good faith.”

'Take these contractors out of here'

Metro also contracts out MetroAccess, its paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities. But the Cinder Bed Road garage is the only part of its main passenger service that has been outsourced. Eighteen of Metrobus’ 325 routes are based there, 15 of which have been shutdown because of the strike.

To ATU Local 689, which represents about 13,000 Metro and area transportation workers, the Cinder Bed Road fight is key to stopping further privatization of the nation’s second-largest public transit system. Metro is already planning to contract out the operation of phase two of the Silver Line.

“This is a public system that belongs to the public,” ATU Local 689 first vice president Carroll “Popeye” Thomas said at Thursday’s board meeting. “Our families use this system. We want a great system. Don’t send it to hell … Take these contractors out of here.”

Committed to the picket line

The strikers have dug in for the long haul. At the garage, lawn chairs have been set up roadside near metal drums that have been converted into wood-burning stoves. A folding table holds meals donated by supporters, coffee, hand sanitizer, strike information fliers. Volunteers have been providing free haircuts, and there was a free fish fry as the union continues to find ways to share expenses while the strike picks at pockets.

“If one goes through hardship, we’ll pass the hat and get them through,” bus operator Winston Nichols said.

The strike, Nichols said, is just the latest sign that “the middle class has gotten fed up.” Many of his colleagues joined that social stratum for the first time working at Cinder Bed Road, lured by Transdev’s $20-an-hour bus operator salary. The diverse group, generally over the age of 30, include former truck drivers, immigrants and holders of new commercial driver's licenses who had sought a career change.

Nichols, 33, was a facilities manager for a nonprofit before paying $650 for his training and certification. He chose a job with Transdev over the Fairfax Connector (then run by another corporation) because the Metrobus contractor offered $4 an hour more.

“That’s how they got everybody in the door,” he said.

Some full-time bus drivers like Nichols earned thousands more than the $41,000 a year base pay with overtime, he said. But once workers started organizing, Nichols said, Transdev began clamping down on hours. He said his pay dropped by more than $20,000 a year, and his “American Dream” — the goal of owning a basic townhouse — vanished.

Nichols said he is surviving on union hardship pay and an emergency fund he had saved to cover his monthly expenses — about $3,000. He has thought about getting another job if the strike drags on. But he said he won’t abandon the picket line.

“Even if I have a full-time job, my spare time will be on that picket line,” he said.

Family and friends have urged some strikers to quit and move on. With the financial pressure building, Nichols said he reminds himself that the fight is over more than hourly wages; it’s against the devaluing of public service workers.

“What if Martin Luther King or Malcolm X would have packed up and left the city?” he said. “I want to be known as a guy who stood for something.”

As strike against contractor goes on, Metrobus riders lose faith in transit

Without a safety net

All of the striking workers have similar stories to tell.

Metrobus operator Sherita Autrey said she wants better work conditions for parents. A single mother with four young girls, Autrey said she struggled traveling back and forth between Lorton and her home in Woodbridge for her assigned split shifts.

Four-hour shifts broken up by unpaid hours in between made child-care planning difficult. She said some days she picked up her children after a shift at 8 p.m., got them ready for bed, fell asleep at 10 p.m. only to wake up at 2 a.m. to go back to work.

Autrey, 32, came to Cinder Bed Road looking for a job with fewer long trips than driving coach buses and tractor-trailers. The $20-an-hour salary seemed attractive, she said, until she tried to juggle split shifts and day-care costs.

“The $20 wasn’t worth it,” she said.

Six days after the strike began, she gave birth to Layla. One of the first operators at the bus garage, Autrey wanted to be at her colleagues’ side, and a union representative brought her a protest sign at the hospital so she wouldn’t feel left out.

Days later, Autrey showed up on the picket line, still healing from a C-section, with her newborn, 4-year-old daughter London and 9-year-old twins, Summer and Sahara.

“I came to support them,” she said one day last week while feeding London a fruit cup. “It wouldn’t feel right because I’ve been here from the start.”

She said the girls’ father provides some support. But with no family nearby, she knows she’s striking without much of a safety net.

“I’m late on everything. Car insurance, paying little by little on rent. New baby needs Pampers, wipes,” she said.

Making sacrifices

Each day of the strike draws Tharien Graham deeper in debt.

“If this goes on any longer, my main concern is my credit,” he said.

Graham, 22, had hoped to use his first credit card to develop a credit history. Instead, he is using it for major bills, including rent and a car payment.

He was attracted to the job of bus operator because Metrobus drivers told him it was a good career.

“It was a way for me to get my CDL and have an actual skill,” he said, referring to his commercial driver’s license.

He developed relationships with regular passengers on 18P, the route he was often assigned. The camaraderie was great, but he said the split shifts Transdev assigned him — between 4:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. — left a five-hour gap where he felt too sleepy to stay up, but not rested enough when he awoke.

“I felt like a zombie,” he said.

He ticked off the name of some of his regular riders — Chris, Al, John — and wondered how they were commuting during the strike. The interactions are among the reasons he doesn’t want another job. He just wants the same pay and rights as other Metrobus drivers, and he’s had to make some humbling requests to make that stand.

“The hardest thing for me was giving up my independence and [reliance] on myself,” he said, “and I’ve had to come to my parents, who are saving for their retirement, and they give me $100 or $200 every month, just something to put gas in my car.”

He said he gave up cable and Internet service, saving $155 a month. Switching his car insurance cut his bill nearly in half. A Metro PCS cellphone saves him $50 a month, but the low data plan means he can’t stream music and Netflix or surf social media.

He canceled a December snowboarding trip, and he worries about facing his nieces and nephews without Christmas presents. He spent his birthday last week on the picket line.

He worked in direct sales and manual labor before he became a Metrobus operator, and it was “the most money I made.”

But he gives it up, he said, in an unwavering belief that the hours he’s giving Metrobus are worth even more.