Nearly 40,000 bus riders in Northern Virginia could be without service by month’s end as hundreds of workers move closer to calling the region’s second bus strike, leaving officials scrambling for a contingency plan.

A labor dispute pitting drivers and garage workers for two of the region’s largest public bus systems against a transit company that has contracts with both Fairfax County and Metro threatens to paralyze commutes in Northern Virginia.

The situation reached a critical stage when the Fairfax Connector’s unionized workers voted Saturday to authorize a strike — which means one could be called at any time.

The Fairfax Connector, which carries an average of 30,000 riders weekdays, is Virginia’s largest bus system and the D.C. area’s third-largest. Fairfax County funds and provides oversight of the 91-route system, which connects Fairfax neighborhoods to Metro lines.

Meanwhile, Tuesday marked Day 20 of a strike by nearly 120 Metrobus workers at the Cinder Bed Road bus garage in Lorton. The garage is the base for 18 Metrobus routes that serve Annandale, Fairfax, Old Town Alexandria, Springfield, Vienna and other mostly Northern Virginia neighborhoods. The strike has shut down 15 routes and limited three others, affecting an average of about 8,500 weekday riders, according to Metro.

All of the workers are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation’s largest guild representing transportation workers. Union negotiators are trying to broker a new contract with Transdev, a French-based corporation that operates on five continents and in 20 countries, providing 11 million passenger trips daily. It also operates Loudoun County Transit.

The workers are seeking higher wages, a resetting of annual pay scales and improved benefit packages that are equivalent to what Metrobus workers employed directly by the transit agency are paid.

Negotiations between Transdev and ATU Local 689, which represents the Cinder Bed Road workers as well as 13,000 other transit workers in the region, stopped nearly two weeks ago. Union officials say Transdev left the talks, unwilling to move any closer to worker demands.

Transdev and ATU Local 1764, which represents 600 employees of the Fairfax Connector, have been negotiating for more than a week, but a 124-to-2 strike-authorization vote by union members Saturday signifies the distance between the two sides. Union officials have said they could call for a work stoppage at any time, but they indicated a logical deadline is Nov. 30, when their contract expires.

Union representatives said Transdev has never made significant counteroffers and keeps stopping negotiations for several hours or days to think things over.

“It’s a stall tactic,” said Winston Nichols, a Metrobus operator who works at the Cinder Bed Road garage and has been part of the union’s negotiating team.

Transdev spokeswoman Mitun Seguin said the company offers a competitive wage and benefit package.

“This is evidenced by the fact that we have been fully staffed with drivers since the inception of the service at the Cinder Bed Road facility and also since taking over the operations and maintenance contract for the Fairfax Connector service in September 2019,” Seguin said.

Union members say Transdev has drawn a hard line in Fairfax Connector negotiations.

“Transdev is coming with a belligerent ‘my way or the highway’ attitude,” said John Ertl, an ATU organizer who is part of the talks. “Everybody at the Fairfax Connector knows that this company will do everything they can to expatriate every dollar they can to their foreign headquarters.”

Wages for Metro-employed bus operators start at about $19 an hour and can go as high as $34 an hour. Workers at the Fairfax Connector start at $16.16 or $19.55 depending on where they are based, according to ATU spokesman David Roscow. The top rate for senior operators is $32.25 after five years of service, but some operators with four years of service make less than $20 an hour, Roscow said.

Fairfax Connector workers want Transdev to close gaps in annual pay raises, he said.

No backup plans

Fairfax Transportation director Tom Biesiadny said county officials are encouraging both sides to reach an agreement. He noted that talks have not stopped and that several days remain before the contract expires.

He declined to say whether the county has plans to keep routes running or other ways to help Connector riders with transportation in case of a strike.

“That’s something that we’re not in a place to talk about right now,” he said.

Biesiadny said he didn’t want to influence negotiations or “telegraph” any intentions.

“In the event that there is a strike, we will communicate directly with passengers about what to expect at that point,” he said.

Biesiadny said over the last 30 years, the bus system has experienced two or three strikes that have been short-lived.

The Transdev employees at the Cinder Bed Road facility make $20 an hour. There is no annual pay scale, and workers have never received a wage increase, Roscow said. In addition to higher pay, they are seeking better retirement benefits and health-care coverage that has a lower deductible than the $6,000 they now pay.

What workers said was poor health coverage became no coverage after Transdev cut off benefits when the strike started.

“It’s a bad situation all the way around,” Metrobus operator Latrice Smith said. “Our health care just got cut off while we are on strike. My co-worker just had a baby, and she shouldn’t be worrying about health care.”

Seguin said Transdev has requested a federal mediator to assist with the negotiations.

“After 10 months of negotiating in good faith, Transdev has been unable to reach a collective bargaining agreement with ATU Local 689,” she said. “We are currently waiting for timing and availability for a mediator. Transdev wants to take advantage of every available tool that could bring negotiations to a resolution.

“Transdev regrets the continued hardship and inconvenience caused by the work stoppage and remains fully committed to coming to an agreement as quickly as possible. Transdev continues to bargain in good faith. We welcome the employees to return to work at any time while working toward a contract and we have communicated that to them and the union.”

Neither Metro nor Fairfax County has shown any sign of intervening. Metro officials said the transit authority has no legal standing to intervene in a dispute between a contractor and its workers.

“The facts haven’t changed,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “This is a labor dispute between the union and Transdev, not Metro, so while we are concerned about the impact the strike has had on our customers, we are not a party to the negotiations and are limited in the role we can play as an outside party.”

Stessel’s comments are similar to those made by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld after last week’s board meeting. Wiedefeld said Metro would not send buses it operates to provide replacement service during the strike.

According to its contract with Metro, Transdev was supposed to have contingencies in place to operate routes during strikes, but the company has not done so.

Metro officials said Transdev filed a contingency plan, but Wiedefeld said the company’s performance during the strike doesn’t violate the clause.

The transit agency’s refusal to get involved has upset riders and elected leaders. The Metro Riders’ Advisory Council wrote to agency leaders last week, criticizing the “continued silence and lack of action to restore bus service.”

“We firmly believe [Metro] must act quickly to solve this crisis,” the letter said.

In addition, 10 members of the Virginia House of Delegates wrote to Wiedefeld pushing him to intervene in the contract negotiations and calling on Metro to stop privatizing services.

“Moreover as this situation demonstrates, privatization of [Metro] services does not serve the interests of our community,” the delegates’ letter said.

Clashes over outsourcing

Metro chose to outsource bus operations in Lorton two years ago after building the Cinder Bed Road bus facility. It awarded Transdev an $89 million contract for three years, plus two one-year options, with the goal of saving $15 million over five years by not paying garage workers Metro pensions and retirement benefits. Wiedefeld said Metro’s annual operating costs go up about 8 percent a year while state and D.C. subsidies cannot increase more than 3 percent each year under the dedicated funding law.

Privatization was one way to make up the difference, and Wiedefeld said the strike has not made Metro reconsider outsourcing operations of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, now under construction.

“Fairfax Connector has been run by the private sector for a long time,” Wiedefeld said. “And there’s lots of examples of things that are run by the private sector that are good. Doesn’t mean it’s always good.”

For years, Fairfax Connector workers have sought better work protections and equity in salaries and benefits. Some employees who have worked with the bus system for decades, staying through multiple county contractors, have said they lack benefits that other public-sector workers have, such as a 401(k) plan.

The previous private operator of the Fairfax Connector and workers were also engaged in a labor dispute. Workers authorized a strike two years ago after labor negotiations over wages, bathroom breaks and a pension plan stalled with the contractor at the time, MV Transportation.

Fairfax’s $443 million, five-year contract with Transdev went into effect in July. Under the contract, Transdev provides operations and maintenance of the bus system, which in fiscal year 2019 carried 8.3 million trips, a 0.26 percent increase from the previous year and an indication of ridership leveling after year of declines.