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In MLB All-Star week, Metro workers empower leaders to strike

Metro workers voted for a potential strike at the ATU Local 689 union hall in Forestville, Md., on Sunday. The vote is the culmination of a two-year labor dispute between Metro’s front-line workers and management.
Metro workers voted for a potential strike at the ATU Local 689 union hall in Forestville, Md., on Sunday. The vote is the culmination of a two-year labor dispute between Metro’s front-line workers and management. (ATU Local 689)

Thousands of workers from Metro’s largest union voted Sunday to authorize a potential transit strike, a risky move that would be the culmination of an extended labor dispute and could grind the region’s transportation network to a halt.

Jackie L. Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said the members approved a potential strike by a 94 percent margin. She declined to give an exact turnout, saying thousands had voted.

Union leaders would not say whether they will launch a strike now that they have been authorized to do so.

“We will decide the when and where and how,” Jeter said at a news conference Sunday night. “We have to call a meeting of the executive board after this vote, and then we’ll decide on what we’re going to do.”

Jeter said that executive board meeting could take place as soon as Monday.

Because Metro workers are forbidden from striking under the system’s governing compact, a judge or arbitrator could order an end to any strike and penalize those who do not comply.

Even a brief work stoppage would have the potential to significantly disrupt the transit system, which transports about 1 million people a day and is expecting an additional influx of riders Monday and Tuesday nights in connection with Major League Baseball All-Star Game festivities. The union’s last authorization vote, in 1978, led to a one-week strike.

“We understand the ramifications of what we’re asking our members, we understand what a strike would mean,” said Jeter, whose labor group includes about 8,000 of Metro’s 12,500 active workers.

Carroll Thomas, the union’s first vice president, laid out the implications plainly: “If we don’t move, this region doesn’t move.”

Metro officials declined to comment on the possibility of a strike, and board members said they would defer to the agency’s response, which was expected Monday.

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The vote follows “late-out” demonstrations on July 4 and Thursday, in which some employees arrived after the start of their scheduled shifts, noticeably delaying some bus service. Labor leaders say those actions were intended to send a message to Metro management about stalled contract negotiations, job cuts, privatization, duty reassignments and other issues.

Local 689 has been without a contract since July 2016,with binding arbitration ordered last fall.

The union and Metro management have sparred over a three-day advance notice policy for sick leave and whether workers should be able to work a seventh consecutive day in exchange for double pay.

Most recently, the union objected to Metro’s reassignment of janitors from rail yards and bus garages to subway stations, which labor leaders said happened without required consultations. Jeter called the custodian issue the “last straw.”

Since Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld took over the transit system in November 2015, union members have held regular demonstrations at Metro board meetings, voicing their opposition to cuts to jobs and open positions, fare increases, service cuts and a shift toward private contractors over union workers.

The agency has been beset by chronic safety and reliability issues that, along with other factors, have driven down ridership. The resulting revenue losses triggered fare increases and cutbacks in service.

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Labor disputes and contract matters are intended to be resolved through grievances and binding arbitration. But after Metro threatened to discipline anyone who showed up late following the Thursday “late-out,” Jeter issued a veiled strike threat to Wiedefeld.

“In addition, if you make good on your threat to suspend ANYONE for three days for a single miss, ALL OF LOCAL 689 WILL BE TAKING A 3 DAY SUSPENSION,” she wrote in an email to the general manager. The union also circulated a petition calling for Wiedefeld to be removed from office.

In an email to Jeter, Metro Chief Labor Relations Officer John M. Gilman laid out the stakes of an escalation.

“The collective bargaining agreement and the Compact prohibit concerted actions by the union to disrupt the services Metro supplies to the public,” the email said. “We demand that Local 689 cease and desist from any further illegal action and that you immediately instruct your members to arrive on time for work and to comply with all standard operating procedures.”

Forty years have passed since the last Metro workers’ strike.

A week-long work stoppage in 1978 that disrupted commutes across the region centered on Metro’s failure to provide cost-of-living increases of 20 cents an hour that were agreed upon as part of a labor contract.

A U.S. District Court judge ordered the workers to return to the job or face contempt-of-court citations. Two Metro employees were later found guilty of contempt of court and were fined $100 apiece. They also faced Metro penalties ranging from suspension to dismissal, The Post reported at the time.

On Sunday, the line of workers waiting to vote wrapped partly around the building at the first of three scheduled meetings at the Local 689 union hall in Forestville, Md.

Workers chanted “Wiedefeld has got to go!”