The occasion was Metro’s announcement last month of mass disciplinary action against both supervisors and front-line employees for allegedly falsifying track inspection reports. Metro said the misconduct was discovered during an investigation into the July 29 derailment of a Silver Line train near East Falls Church. Jeter said three more firings had been carried out Wednesday.
For at least 90 minutes, Jeter and other union leaders lambasted Metro’s management. They disputed the allegations of falsified reports. They said Metro has failed to provide the fired employees and the union with a detailed explanation of the allegations. They said all but one of the firings had no direct connection to the Silver Line derailment, despite what Metro has said. The union leaders said ordinary workers were simply being scapegoated for the mass transit system’s woes.
“You cannot have a systemic problem and reduce it to one person,” Jeter said.
Jeter said all of the union-represented employees who have been fired for allegedly falsifying records – Metro has now fired seven union-covered workers, by her count – deny the charges. And yet Jeter also suggested that the reason they were innocent was because they had been filling out their inspection reports the way they had done for years.
“I don’t think that anyone who falsifies a report should keep their job,” Jeter said in response to a question. “But one of the things that has to be established is … the claim that they falsified a report.”
Most remarkably, the head of Metro’s largest union asserted that creating a safety culture was the sole duty of management.
“That is their responsibility,” Jeter told reporters. “The onus for safety is on the person who employs them.”
That was just the early rounds. Everyone on the dais was combative. Hanley went so far as to claim that criticism by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) that too many Metro workers were overpaid had overtones of “racism.” H. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of the Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, did him one better, saying criticism of Metro workers by Metro board members and others amounted to “transit lynching.”
So it went. The news conference was long on accusations, suspicions, and opinions that Metro’s leadership had conducted a grand coverup to divert attention from a host of issues, including managerial incompetence and a chronic lack of funding. At one point, Toussaint urged reporters to read some of the reports by federal oversight agencies documenting Metro’s woes — as if no one in the room had heard of them, despite their having produced an almost endless stream of bad news last year.
It was enough to make a person scream: Where’s the beef? Where’s the union’s evidence that the workers did not falsify inspection reports? Or, if reports had been doctored, where was the evidence that workers went along because they had been coerced by their supervisors or that they feared retaliation? Where were the whistleblowers who had spoken up and refused to go along with shoddy work practices that might endanger themselves, their co-workers or riders?
Only after nearly two hours did the union leadership decide to trot out an actual track worker who asserted that his firing Wednesday — for allegedly falsifying inspection records — was unwarranted.
Trap Thomas, who worked for nine years with Metro and nine years before that with New York City transit, told reporters that he was fired simply for doing his job. He said he had never filed phony reports. On the contrary, he said, he documented track defects that triggered speed restrictions.
For his pains, Thomas said, he received retaliation. At one point, he said his supervisors directed him to undergo drug and alcohol-testing. Supervisors also transferred his reporting station from Alexandria to New Carrollton, which was 20 miles away.
Thomas echoed Jeter’s assertion that he and others who have been fired were penalized for going along with procedures that their supervisors had taught them to follow.
“What they’re calling fabrication is a normal process,” Thomas said. He also said he had previously filed whistleblower complaints with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Metro’s Office of Inspector General. “I’ve been trying to expose the culture of retaliation.”
As my colleague Martine Powers noted, Thomas made similar allegations in interviews with Metro officials during the Silver Line derailment investigation into the July 29 as contained in transcripts published by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Thomas’ story was compelling – but also maddening for the way in which his allegations were presented.
His account — besides coming at the end of a two-hour news conference — was confusing and incomplete. For example, he told reporters that he was let go because supervisors accused him of filing inspection reports for months that never changed in their measurements of rail gauge — which is the width between rails — even by as little as 1/16th of an inch. Metro’s investigators, to judge from the NTSB transcripts, thought that explanation sounded fishy.
Thomas told reporters his measurements never varied because the tracks never moved. He suggested that only an increase in traffic shortly before the derailment — caused by the need to single-track — had caused the tracks to spread apart.
There’s no way of knowing yet whether Thomas’ account squares with reality.
A Metro spokesman said the agency, like most employers, could not comment on Thomas’ allegations because the agency cannot discuss disciplinary action against any individual employee.
Lost in the rhetorical melee of the union news conference were some decent points. Jeter and Hanley both defended the union’s obligation to represent fired and disciplined employees in disciplinary proceedings, saying their role is to ensure that people were not stripped of a job without due process. Jeter said the local did not just reflexively defend every employee: that morning, she said, the leadership dropped eight grievances, including some involving terminated employees.
Jeter also reminded people that Metro’s firing of a worker over a fan inspection — which the agency said was related to a fatal smoke event at L’Enfant Plaza in January 2015 — had been overturned by an independent arbitrator who ruled that it wasn’t just the worker who was to blame. In that case, the arbitrator found that the worker had doctored reports with his supervisor’s approval, following longstanding (and sloppy) procedures.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld responded to the union event with a statement acknowledging that thousands of Metro employees do their jobs well and put safety concerns first.
“However, a true culture of safety requires that we hold ourselves and each other accountable,” Wiedefeld said. “We cannot condone falsification of documents, and I stand by the actions we have taken that hold both frontline and management employees accountable.”
We can hope we’ll be hearing more from Thomas and the union — and other whistleblowers, too, about their efforts to speak out about the workplace routines that have undermined the nation’s mass transit system.
Jeter’s right in one way, though. You can’t pin an entire system’s woes on a single person. But you also can’t create a safety culture in a dynamic workplace like a railroad unless you instill in everyone that safety is not just the boss’ job.
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