Labor union presidents seldom have good things to say about the company boss. But the head of Metro’s principal union is praising the transit agency’s new chief, Paul J. Wiedefeld, describing him as the first general manager in memory to take safety seriously.
The previous ones never “gave a crap” and only “cared about safety on paper,” Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said in an interview.
Wiedefeld showed that he is different, Jeter said, by shutting down the entire rail system for a full day last week for an emergency safety inspection.
“I think that everyone was impressed by what Wiedefeld did,” Jeter said. “He had to know he was going to get some backlash. But it was more important to be safe. It was more important to ‘put my money where my mouth is’. . . . I was very proud of him.”
Jeter also welcomed what she called Wiedefeld’s “bottom-up” management style, saying he made more effort than his predecessor to solicit and respond to front-line workers’ views.
Her comments add weight to the early impression that Wiedefeld has brought a substantially new — and improved — kind of leadership to Metro since he took over the troubled system in November.
“He has built up good credibility, a good operational style and good relations with the unions, and that goes a long way to build a good foundation at Metro,” said Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member.
Jeter, whose union represents 9,500 Metro workers and 3,000 retirees, acknowledged that she and Wiedefeld were sure to clash in the future because of the natural tensions between management and labor.
She also warned that she expected “a large contract fight” over renewing her members’ wages and benefits agreement, which expires June 30. She was especially concerned that Metro has brought in a new consultant, Kevyn Orr, who has a record of taking tough positions against organized labor.
But the thrust of Jeter’s comments in a wide-ranging interview was positive about Wiedefeld’s first four months. She spoke Tuesday at the union’s headquarters in Forestville in Prince George’s County.
Jeter said that on Jan. 25, the Monday after the weekend blizzard, her members appreciated that Wiedefeld intervened to prevent employees from being penalized if they couldn’t get to work because their neighborhoods were still snowed in.
Wiedefeld has attended town hall meetings with employees in the field and has been personally involved in labor-management meetings to address the issue of assaults against bus operators.
“He’s shown the workers he cares about what they do,” Jeter said.
The union’s attitude is especially important regarding safety, because it’s essential that employees feel comfortable raising questions or concerns about potential hazards without fearing punishment by supervisors.
In one of his most startling comments about Metro since taking over, Wiedefeld said he has found that workers still lack the confidence to speak up when they see potential dangers in the system. That means Metro is still missing a key component of a safety culture — despite more than six years of much-publicized efforts to instill it since the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.
Jeter, in her 10th year as union president, said that in the past, management was too focused on whether problems were going to cost it money.
“Previous managers, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think gave a crap about the safety culture at WMATA,” Jeter said, referring to Metro by an abbreviation of its formal title, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“They cared about safety on paper. They cared about things that were risky to WMATA as far as they cost WMATA something, such as workmen’s compensation or accidents [for which] they had to pay out in liability,” Jeter said.
She also said management relied too much on suspensions and other penalties to respond to safety issues.
“That does not get you to a safety culture, no matter how high the penalty is,” Jeter said. The only thing that will rectify the problem is to take a concentrated interest in retraining, retraining, retraining,” she said, repeating the word for emphasis.
Jeter conceded that management had provided more retraining since 2009 through courses in how to protect workers during repairs on the line and a partnership on reporting close calls when near-collisions occur.
But she said it wasn’t enough and singled out former general manager Richard Sarles for his approach.
“Some governors manage from the top down, and on safety, you have to govern from the bottom up,” Jeter said. “Wiedefeld governs from the bottom up, and Sarles governed from the top down.”
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency had no comment about Jeter’s critique. Sarles, who has remained publicly mum about Metro since stepping down as general manager in January 2015, did not reply to an email requesting comment.
Jeter strongly rejected arguments that the union is a barrier to reform at Metro. Some Metro critics say employees enjoy such strong union protections that supervisors can’t remove or discipline employees who underperform regarding safety, reliability or customer service.
“That’s a crock,” she said. “I don’t think any union is too strong where workers’ rights are concerned.”
But Jeter didn’t exempt the union and its members from responsibility for some of Metro’s troubles. She said the union represents such a large part of Metro’s workforce — including train and bus operators, mechanics and station managers — that it is fully “intertwined” with whatever happens at the agency.
“I don’t take the union out of the equation,” Jeter said. Pressed to say what the union could have done to help avoid the system’s problems, she commented that it was sometimes too passive and complacent.
“If there’s anything where my members are responsible, it’s that sometimes we go along to get along. I think that is the responsibility that we bear,” she said.
For example, she said that in hindsight, the union should have pressed management to conduct repair work on rail lines more efficiently by doing repairs needed on a single line all at once instead of “hopping around” from one line to another.
“I don’t think at WMATA we actually force change through suggestion or through criticism, for that matter, as much as we should,” Jeter said.