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Opinion A strike in Virginia will determine the future of the area’s public transit

Winston Nichols, a Cinder Bed Road bus garage operator and union labor organizer, speaks at a rally at Metro headquarters on Nov. 6.
Winston Nichols, a Cinder Bed Road bus garage operator and union labor organizer, speaks at a rally at Metro headquarters on Nov. 6. (Justin George/The Washington Post)

Raymond Jackson is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.

More than a year ago, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld chose to contract out the new Cinder Bed Road Metrobus garage in Lorton. They brought in Transdev, a massive French corporation, to handle the garage’s operations and maintenance. Wiedefeld claimed the move would save the agency money.

However, there are dirty little secrets that WMATA and Wiedefeld don’t want the public to know. Their path toward privatization was always doomed to fail, in part because companies such as Transdev have a long history of devaluing service, safety and their workers for the sake of profits.

We at Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 have members who still remember why WMATA was created: Its private-sector predecessors repeatedly failed to deliver equitable service while trying to turn a profit. Those failures ignited years of labor unrest, including several strikes by our members. These members now watch with frustration as WMATA ignores its history and entrusts public transit to private hands, this time with even bigger consequences.

That is why our more than 120 members at Cinder Bed Road have been on strike for the past five weeks — the first Metrobus strike in 41 years.

These workers at Cinder Bed garage, employed by Transdev, make $12 per hour less on average than a public-sector WMATA bus operator. They also have a $6,000 deductible on their health insurance, for those who can even afford the premiums. Yet they drive the same buses on the same Metrobus routes that public WMATA employees had done for years before.

The cost savings Wiedefeld bragged about when he outsourced the garage? That money comes directly out of these workers’ pockets and out of the reliability of service for the thousands of riders left stranded since the strike began.

This is just the start of WMATA’s privatization scheme. Wiedefeld plans to hand over the beleaguered Silver Line extension to the lowest bidder. Then he will move garage by garage until he’s sold off the entire Metro system. His grand vision for the future won’t deliver quality service at a low cost but endless labor upheaval brought on by multinational contractors’ competition to pay the lowest wages and fully abandon accountability to the public.

The workers at Cinder Bed Road are not asking for the world. Our members on strike are simply asking that WMATA either compel Transdev to bargain an agreement that grants workers’ compensation parity with other WMATA employees or kick Transdev out and bring the service, and these workers, back in house.

Transdev has repeatedly proved that it is not acting in good faith. It has walked away from the bargaining table twice since the strike began. It cut off health benefits to diabetics and single parents. Now workers at another Transdev property, Fairfax Connector, voted to authorize a strike if necessary. If these workers also walk off the job, which could happen as early as Dec. 1, an additional 30,000 commuters could find themselves stranded.

WMATA could end all of this tomorrow. If it actually enforced the terms of its contract, Transdev should have paid millions of dollars in fines by now. But WMATA is determined to prop up this failed scheme by any means necessary, even if it leaves workers starving and riders stranded.

We are sorry the riding public has been caught in the crossfire of Wiedefeld’s experiments. Our members want to return to the jobs they love. But without a fair contract, they can’t afford to. Nobody seeks out a strike or seeks out weeks of missed pay to have their health care cut off by a callous employer, to put less food in their children’s bellies. They wouldn’t be out every morning at 4, day after day, unless they felt their economic lives depended on it.

We’re in this fight to the end and will do whatever it takes to ensure that public transportation remains public and that transit workers can have safe, middle-class careers. If WMATA and Transdev continue on this path, transit service throughout the entire region could be affected. WMATA can prevent that outcome by doing nothing more than providing equal pay for equal work.

Read more:

Neil O. Albert: Metro can’t afford to be a peak-period-only service

Paul Lewis: It’s not too late for a better Silver Line contract

The Post’s View: Metro needs $500 million a year, and it needs it now

Robert J. Flanagan and W. Edward Walter: Fixing Metro’s fundamental flaw