Days after announcing that the Fairfax Connector would run extra buses on one of its routes to help riders who have been impacted by a strike at a Metrobus garage, Fairfax County transportation officials pulled the plug.

No reason was given, but the reversal came after the nation’s largest transportation worker union alleged that by providing additional service, the Fairfax Connector was aiding a company’s efforts to end a worker strike by using other union operators to lessen the impact of the work stoppage.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation issued an advisory saying additional buses would no longer run during peak hours on Route 306, which stretches from George Mason University to the Pentagon.

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“The limited temporary rush-hour service on Fairfax Connector Route 306 - GMU-Pentagon will no longer operate starting tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019,” the advisory said. It said that three “supplemental” southbound trips on the route would continue as scheduled Wednesday but that after 7 p.m. “supplemental trips previously operated will be discontinued.” The extra service was announced Oct. 25.

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A spokesperson for the Fairfax County DOT could not be reached for comment.

Wednesday marked the seventh day that nearly 130 workers at a Metrobus garage in Lorton, Va., have been on strike. Operators, mechanics and utility workers say they are protesting low wages, benefits and unsafe working conditions and have walked out on Transdev, a private contractor for Metrobus, which operates the Cinder Bed Road bus garage. Amalgamated Transit Union officials say they do the same job as Metrobus’s government-paid workers but are paid about $12 less an hour.

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Metro turned operations of the garage over to Transdev after building the new facility two years ago, saying outsourcing would save the transit authority $15 million over five years and stave off any need to lay off Metrobus drivers. Savings would be generated by not paying incoming Cinder Bed Road workers the same pension and benefit packages Metro pays its workers, Metro said at the time.

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Transdev and ATU Local 689 negotiators have been trying to come up with a collective bargaining agreement since early this year. After months of little progress, union members called for a strike on Oct. 24, which took Transdev and Metro by surprise. Since then, 15 mostly Northern Virginia Metrobus routes serviced by buses from the garage have been shut down, while three more routes have limited service. On average, 8,500 riders would use the routes on weekdays, Metro said.

To alleviate some of the impact on area bus riders, Fairfax County transportation officials said they ordered the Fairfax Connector to increase service on Route 306. But the move was met with immediate backlash from striking workers at Cinder Bed Road, as well as ATU’s national membership. Union officials called the plan a strike-busting tactic because it worked against picketers.

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Fairfax County has also outsourced operations of the Fairfax Connector, which is Virginia’s largest public bus line, to Transdev. Union officials said the additional service on the Connector lessened the impact of the strike, which is meant to disrupt and call attention to worker issues. The additional service would be driven by ATU-unionized bus operators, essentially using them to undercut their own striking membership, the union said.

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On Tuesday, Transdev spokeswoman Mitun Seguin said the county’s transportation department “determines service levels for its vendor runs, not Transdev.”

Union negotiators and Transdev are also about to begin discussions for a new contract for Fairfax Connector employees.

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On Wednesday, about 70 ATU members stood outside a Fairfax Connector bus facility as part of an “information picket” before going to the office of Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At Large). They called on Bulova to stop the expanded bus service and to end the county’s partnership with Transdev, ATU spokesman David Roscow said.

Some Fairfax County supervisors have been vocal in their support of striking workers at the Metrobus garage. On Tuesday, the board sent Metro a letter urging the transit authority to help end the labor dispute because of the impact on the region.

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Also Tuesday, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld issued a statement urging Transdev and union officials to return to the bargaining table. Those talks were set to resume Thursday.

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A clause in Metro’s contract with Transdev calls for the multinational transit company to have a contingency plan that would keep bus routes fully operational if workers went on strike. Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said in a statement that the company has a plan on file with Metro that “contemplates reduced service in the initial days of a strike due to a shortage of trained, professional bus operators.”

“Strikes, by their nature, are disruptive and it would be unrealistic to expect normal service levels with a strike in progress,” he said. “That said, Metro views every scheduled trip as essential, and under the plan Transdev must use all reasonable efforts to return to providing service levels.”

While Transdev’s contract does not explicitly call for sanctions for failing to operate during a strike, Jannetta said, the contract does allow Metro to seek “liquidated damages or other monetary damages” if Transdev failed to meet performance expectations. The contract does not lay out a timetable for when Metro could seek damages, he said.

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