The legal fight between Metro and its biggest union over the firing of a mechanic who falsified inspection reports has barely begun. But even in the early going it already feels as if two punch-drunk fighters  are flailing at each other in the middle of the ring.

The outcome of Washington’s latest public spectacle over its mass transit system is already assured, too: the biggest loser will be taxpayers and commuters – not to mention the contenders themselves.

Why?

To read the legal papers is to see how both Metro management and its largest union have conspired to create an atmosphere of devil-may-care work ethic, lax oversight, and cover-your-fanny ineptitude. These palookas deserve each other.

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The dispute over the mechanic’s firing begins in January 2015, after a Yellow Line train stalled in a smoke-filled tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza and became engulfed in the noxious fumes. One person died, and dozens were sickened.

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In the aftermath, investigators discovered that a circuit board for one of the fans that removed smoke from the Yellow Line tunnel had burned out. It was also discovered that Seyoum Haile, a senior mechanic, had falsified preventive maintenance inspection reports on the fan, court documents say. When confronted with discrepancies in those inspection reports during the post-accident investigation, Haile also lied, Metro’s management says. In court documents, Metro accused Haile of failing to discover a latent problem with the circuit board that could impair its functioning during an emergency. So it canned him on Feb. 17, 2015, in the name of keeping Metro safe.

But the story is more complex than that. And the union is on to something when it argues that Haile, who had been employed with the agency for 13 years, had only been following routine procedure in a workplace where management fostered incompetence and allowed people to make stuff up as they went along.

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Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents more than 13,000 Metro employees, filed a grievance against Haile’s firing — as any union would be required to do. That’s because it’s still the case in the United States that people are (or should be) entitled to due process, just as the guiltiest of defendants is still entitled to an attorney and a fair trial. If the union hadn’t made a good faith effort to defend him, Haile could have sued the union.

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The case ultimately landed before a Board of Arbitration. The three-person panel was composed of a union advocate, a Metro advocate and neutral arbitrator Ezio Borchini. Borchini is an attorney who public records say has mediated disputes in several industries. He is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School. Public records show that his decisions have gone both ways: sometimes workers have won, sometimes management.

During arbitration proceedings, Metro produced evidence that Haile was supposed to have inspected the tunnel fan and tested its operation on three different occasions in September, October and November 2014. But computer records cited by Metro showed that the the fan had not been operated — either by local or remote control — on those occasions. Metro says Haile submitted six false maintenance reports about those inspections and lied about them during the post-accident investigation.

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Metro’s bosses also argued that this was not a one-off for Haile: he was suspended 10 days in 2009 for “making false statements in his daily work log and during an interview.”

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At first glance, it sounds as if he might have falsified inspection reports on critical safety gear before. It turns out Haile was suspended because he left work to run a personal errand – either to help a relative who was locked out of a house or retrieve a wallet, the story varies – without notifying supervisors. That’s not good. But it’s also not saying that you fixed a potentially dangerous track condition when you didn’t.

A deeper look at the documents shows why the arbitrator would eventually rule that Haile’s dismissal was excessive. On page after page, the documents show that Haile was not some employee who was pretending to conduct inspections on fans. But he had been going about his work in haphazard fashion and failing to document inspection reports for some time, all with the tacit blessing of superiors.

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The reason for this was that the practice of running fan tests — and heaven knows what else at Metro — had become so inefficient and sloppy that Haile and other mechanics did not always conduct their inspections in a systematic way or fill out their maintenance reports properly.

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During these inspections, the mechanics operated the fans from nearby switches or by remote  control. When mechanics wanted to run a test remotely, they had to contact Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). The ROCC staff sometimes put the mechanics on hold, failed to call back, or had trouble locating the correct switch for the fans in question.

On one of the last inspections Haile and a co-worker conducted on the fan before the fatal Yellow Line incident, he was heard in the background on an audio recording respectfully trying to help the ROCC official locate the right switch. But the ROCC operator couldn’t find it and hung up. He and his coworker went to work on another fan but did not return to the original one.

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These fan tests could last as long as 10 minutes or as little as three minutes. But sometimes Haile and other mechanics had to wait for hours to conduct a test or even come back a day later to complete the inspections – and leave part of their inspection reports blank until then.

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In fact, Haile’s supervisor, Nicholas Perry, acknowledged in arbitration testimony that he gave out pre-signed inspection reports to his crew. The forms said “reviewed by a supervisor,” even if that were not the case, a practice Perry testified that he has since discontinued.

Perry also testified that Haile’s inspection documents weren’t properly filled out for an eight-month period – from January until August 2014. But Perry also testified that he hadn’t noticed this until sometime in September or October.  It was only then that Perry asked Haile to come in and fill in the blanks.

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Charles Campbell, superintendent of equipment maintenance, also didn’t have a clue that there were any discrepancies in the inspection reports until after the fatal Yellow Line incident, the court documents say. Haile testified that he was called in to account for his incomplete 2014 inspection reports only after the deadly event on Jan. 12, 2015 — all of which suggests Metro was not in the habit of properly documenting inspections until it was too late.

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Haile wasn’t even in the country the last time the Yellow Line fan was tested before the Jan. 12, 2015 smoke incident. That was done by two other employees in December — and their inspection reports also didn’t match ROCC testing records. One of the workers was disciplined after the deadly event with a three-day suspension; the other wasn’t disciplined at all.

In other words, neither employees nor their supervisors seemed greatly concerned  about ensuring that the tunnel fans were inspected in a systematic fashion, and their routine for doing so was so slapdash that it might seem funny if not for the consequences. Metro knew this and apparently did next to nothing about it until someone died.

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On April 8, the arbitration board issued its ruling. Instead of being fired, Borchini held that Haile should be suspended without pay for 180 days — hardly a slap on the wrist.  As part of his reasoning, the arbitrator cited Metro’s “systemic maintenance practices.”

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On July 20, the ATU filed suit in U.S. District Court to uphold the arbitrator’s decision. Last week, Metro filed a countersuit seeking to vacate the arbitration award.

By way of disclosure, I believe that organized labor has an important role to play in the workplace. I am an officer in a union. Some of my brethren might not be pleased to hear that I think some grievances should have stopped with union leadership — and not just infamous cases such as the Metrobus driver who kept his job despite punching a police officer dressed as McGruff the Crime Dog, or the  driver involved in a fatal crash with a taxi. The blog Unsuck DC Metro reported in 2009 that 87 employees had been terminated, only to be reinstated, including a train operator who was texting on a Blackberry while the train was moving. The union should not be an enabler of employees who pose a danger to themselves and the public.

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Yet, if anything, the arbitrator got this one right. An 180-day suspension is not nothing. There’s also some truth to the union’s argument that Haile is a scapegoat. Despite the long list of repeated failures at every level – as catalogued exhaustively by the National Transportation Safety Board  and the Federal Transportation Administration, among others – Metro singled out one fan mechanic and fired him.

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I emailed Metro’s media office to ask if supervisors Perry and Campbell were disciplined or fired for failing to take action about the long-running discrepancies in preventive maintenance inspection reports — or for failing to discipline Haile earlier for such lapses. I haven’t heard back, but here’s betting both supervisors are still on the job. No doubt that’s also the case with ROCC officials who failed to cooperate with mechanics trying to conduct the fan tests.

Also, no one forced Metro to sign a contract that requires workplace disputes to be settled through binding arbitration. But the agency did, and it can’t just ignore a decision because the ump ruled against it.

What’s more, Metro had 90 days to go to court to try to vacate the arbitrator’s April 8 decision. It didn’t. Yet, the union — which supposedly can’t get anything right — moved as soon as it could to enforce the contract and reinstate Haile. It was only in response to that legal action that Metro sought to undo the arbitrator’s award — despite being out of time and presumably knowing that it has to meet a high legal standard to get that award tossed out. Even in a case where Metro has a point and might elicit sympathy for itself, its management can’t seem to get its act together.

Metro is probably going to lose this fight, but only after a lot of money — yours and mine included — goes up in smoke. In a sense, however, both sides have already lost.

By the way, the fan worked. When the Yellow Line went up in smoke, the tunnel fan ran for several hours. It burned out only after the emergency was over. It did its job.

That’s more than you can say for Metro’s management or a lot of its workers.

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