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D.C. Circulator drivers strike for second day amid negotiations

Union leaders and workers said they will continue the work stoppage until an agreement is reached

Bus operators picket outside the D.C. Circulator headquarters Tuesday in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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The first day’s negotiations between a bus drivers union and the operator of D.C. Circulator since workers began striking were unsuccessful through Wednesday evening, increasing the prospects of a potentially lengthy outage of the city’s only public bus service.

Circulator remained paralyzed for a second day after drivers walked off the job over what they say are unfair wages and poor working conditions. The strike follows fruitless negotiations with RATP Dev USA, the company that operates the bus system for D.C.'s Department of Transportation, leaving transit riders across the city this week to wait for buses that never show.

Leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and workers said they will continue the work stoppage until an agreement is reached. The next negotiating date is in two weeks.

“If they don’t do right by us operators, these buses won’t move,” Circulator driver Sylvester Blow said. “The strike will last as long as it has to.”

RATP Dev, which has managed the bus system under a contract with the city since 2018, said in a statement late Tuesday it was optimistic an agreement could be reached, adding “we have made progress on wages and other terms and will continue to work together starting [Wednesday] to end this work stoppage, put buses back on the road and put our employees back to work.”

But as of Wednesday evening, the two parties were still in negotiations and it was unclear if a deal was possible to avoid a days-long stoppage of Circulator. RATP Dev officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

“If the company is reasonable and wants to end this quickly, they’d reach a deal today,” said Brian Wivell, a spokesman for ATU Local 689, which represents the more than 150 drivers. “But that’s up to them.”

D.C. Circulator drivers strike over pay, disrupting commutes

The strike has disrupted travel for riders who depend on the six-route system. Although most have access to Metrobus and rail lines, many passengers have waited for Circulator buses that never showed, unaware of the strike.

Less than 5 percent of the system’s buses are on the road, while dozens are parked at its three garages.

Some commuters were still confused Wednesday about buses not showing up, taking to social media to call on the system to better communicate its status. DDOT tweeted Tuesday a list of bike, bus and rail alternatives, and city officials said crews have been driving along the routes to get the message to would-be passengers about the lack of service. Circulator’s social media accounts made no mention of the strike and widespread disruptions.

“It would be helpful to have signs by stops so we aren’t late to school, work, etc.,” one rider tweeted Wednesday.

Since the strike began Tuesday, several elected leaders and candidates for office have joined drivers at Circulator’s 17th Street NE garage to show support. Among those were former Maryland Rep. Donna F. Edwards and D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who said “workers are determined to fight until they win a contract with dignity, respect, and fair wages.”

At-Large D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Robert C. White Jr. joined drivers on the picket line Tuesday evening, calling for better conditions and salaries for transit workers, who he said were essential to keeping the city running during the pandemic.

“They had our backs all through the pandemic. It’s past time to support them in their demand for a dignified salary and benefits in line with other transit workers in DC,” White tweeted.

The union is asking the city to intervene. The office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declined to comment Wednesday, and DDOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

RATP Dev said it has offered a contract that increases 401(k) matches, adds an additional medical plan, makes Juneteenth a paid holiday and includes “better wages.” But ATU Local 689 says the company’s offer “failed to adequately address years of underpayment and inflation” and “threatened to substitute our members with subcontractors, eliminated workers’ federal rights under the Family & Medical Leave Act, and proposed undermining the concept of progressive discipline.”

Circulator drivers are asking for pay parity with other transit workers in the region, a 401(k) employer contribution similar to what D.C. government workers receive, without the requirement that employees match it, and better working conditions.

RATP Dev and ATU Local 689 have been negotiating a contract since March and had approved a 30-day contract extension that expired Saturday. Circulator drivers have historically been among the lowest-paid public transit operators in the Washington region.