by Karyn Pomerantz December, 2019
On October 24, 130 mechanics and bus and garage workers at the Cinder Bed Road Metro garage in Lorton, Virginia walked out to demand equitable pay and benefits. Like auto and food industry workers, they receive lower wages and higher health insurance costs than other Metro employees performing the same jobs who are part of the same union.
WMATA, or Metro, is the publicly funded transportation system of bus and subway routes serving the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 represents the 8,000 workers who operate out of bus garages, offices, and subway stations. Members earn relatively high wages, health benefits, and pensions compared to other jobs that don’t require advanced education.
WMATA has been slowly privatizing its services by paying contractors to run bus routes, such as the Circulator routes that mostly served tourists and people in the downtown areas. Circulator drivers started at $16.56 per hour while Metrobus drivers started at $19 per hour. WMATA privatized its MetroAccess service for people with disabilities and plans to privatize the new Silver Line subway route as well.
In 2017, Metro paid Transdev, a large French transit corporation, $89 million for three years to run the new Cinder Bed Road Metro garage in Lorton, Virginia. In 2018, Transdev earned over $7.5 billion from its international contracts. Transdev paid workers $12 per hour less than other Metro drivers depending on their length of service and offered health insurance with higher premiums ($100 per month for individuals and $200 for families) and high deductibles ($1000 for individuals and $6000 for families). Metro stands to save $15 million over five years by not paying benefits
Privatization, Inequality, Women, and Racism
Outsourcing work in order to pay the least amount possible is a global strategy. This “race to the bottom” leaves workers unemployed and hopeless in the more industrialized countries and impoverished in the poorer countries. This globalization (i.e. imperialism) allows corporations to pay poverty wages, ignore work safety practices, and avoid environmental protections in the countries they exploit. These conditions spur millions to escape through migration in hopes of finding employment aand stability elsewhere.
In the US, depression and economic stress have led to drug addiction, suicide, and alcoholism as people try to escape and self-medicate. Such conditions, labeled “diseases of despair,” have increased mortality by 29% among 25-64 year olds. This decrease in life expectancy affects black and white people, and men and women living primarily in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio where steel plants, auto factories, and mines closed in the 1980s, leaving people with no jobs or with much lower paying jobs. This exacerbated class related health inequalities as upper income women had 14 extra years of life and upper income men had 10 extra years than people with low incomes.
Privatizing increases inequalities in the working class and especially harms African American and women workers. It drives down wages while increasing the profits of private companies. Workers often turn to public safety net programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, TANF (“welfare”), and CHIP (children’s health insurance), which costs taxpayers money that could be spent on public services, such as transportation. Immigrant families are not even allowed to use healthcare programs for the poor, forcing people to seek care in expensive emergency rooms. With such low wages, people cannot shop or pay as much in property, income, or sales taxes, draining local economies of funds for schools, parks, and housing subsidies.
Publicly funded government jobs have provided African American workers stable jobs with higher pay, unions, better anti-discrimination enforcement, and stronger benefit packages than private sector employment. Approximately 20% of black workers hold public sector jobs. When privatization occurs, contractors reduce or eliminate retirement benefits, causing severe poverty and instability for retirees. About 3% of African Americans with retirement benefts lived below the poverty line (2014) compared to about 22% without publicly funded pensions.
Women comprise a large proportion of government workers at national, state, and county levels. Public employment provides more upward job mobility than private jobs. Considering the wage gaps between men and women and the financial responsibilities women heads of households have, these opportunities are crucial.
Metro Workers Strike
For the first time in 41 years, Metro workers with Transdev walked out to demand parity with other Metro workers in wages and benefits. Transdev then cut off their health benefits and only negotiated sporadically. Members of Jobs with Justice, the Progressive Labor Party, and DC residents joined the picket lines and rallies held at the garage and at Metro Headquarters (https://wamu.org/story/19/11/06/bus-drivers-rally-amid-strike-to-end-privatization-of-metro-jobs/). On November 21, 100 union members and supporters jammed into the Metro Board’s meeting demanding an end to the contract and unfurling a banner proclaiming “Equal Pay – Equal Work,” briefly stopping the meeting before being kicked out. They then marched around the downtown area to spread the word of their strike. Local 689 plans more rallies and actions, but it needs to call a strike of all their members.
Spread the Strike – Shut It DOWN
All Metro workers need to strike to put more pressure on WMATA and Transdev. Transdev received $443 million over five years to run the Fairfax, Virginia bus lines, the Fairfax Connector. The Connector carries 30,000 passengers a day and employs 600 people organized in ATU Local 1764. They have also fought for pay equity, comparable benefits, and bathroom breaks. Their contract expired on November 30; they have voted to strike if necessary. As I write this on December 6, the drivers started their strike.
It is imperative that workers expand this strike to all Metro workers to win their demands quickly and return service to the public. If the union leadership does not lead work actions, the rank and file can organize themselves to shut the system down, putting businesses and politicians on notice that all workers need a living salary, health benefits, and pensions paid by the owners. The Cinder Bed Road workers have provided the opportunity, and Metro workers have set a precedent.
Wildcat Metro Strike, 1978
In 1978, Metro workers in Virginia broke the no-strike clause in their contract and went on strike to demand their cost of living (COL) increase. WMATA tried to eliminate the full cost of living increase and invoked arbitration during the 1970s contract negotiations. In 1976, arbitration ruled against the COLA, and the union president advised patience. The membership was furious. When WMATA denied the COLA again in 1978 and union president Davis called for calm, members responded with anger and action. They voted to strike in spite of the union’s objections. Militant and revolutionary workers led the planning. They organized mass meetings of 1000s of workers and picket lines at each worksite. When one driver told the strikers to return to work, the crowd refused and continued the strike. It lasted seven days and restored the COLA.
Communists from the Progressive Labor Party played a leadership role in initiating and organizing the strike, arguing that workers needed to break the no-strike rule in the contract while the union leadership told people to go back to work. They and others risked arrest but made sure that strIkers picketed and blocked any strikebreakers from driving the buses. This boldness was possible because thousands of co-workers fought back and refused to follow the union leadership.
What You Can Do
Transdev workers have no health coverage or sufficient strike funds. They have missed over two months of wages and struggle to pay their bills. People can support them by donating money and food (see www.jwjdc.org and http://www.atu.org), joining the picket line, (see http://www.dclabor.org), attending rallies, discussing the strike with co-workers, and writing to the Metro Board (firstname.lastname@example.org). Unions in other jobs can mobilize walk-outs to further disrupt “business as usual.”
Teachers, Amazon warehouse employees, and auto workers in the US have walked off their jobs to protest pay inequities and speedup. The French government announced cuts in retirement for French transit workers. With support from air traffic controllers, hospital workers, and others, the union organized a strike to shut down transportation throughout the country.
People in Iraq, France,and Latin America are militantly demanding an end to the drastic income differentials and standards of living between rich and poor. We need to support these movements for a more egalitarian world and promote multiracial and international solidarity as well as promoting the support of all unions for one another’s struggles here in the USA.
ATU. Privatization Explained. ND. http://www.atulocal689.org/privatization-explained.html
Washington Post. 11-24-2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/for-striking-metrobus-workers-the-fight-for-more-rights-and-better-pay-outweighs-the-financial-hardship/2019/11/24/e5765194-0bc6-11ea-bd9d-c628fd48b3a0_story.html
Jobs with Justice DC. http:www.jwjdc.org
In the Public Interest. How Privatization Increases Inequality, Executive Summary. 2016. http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/wp-content/uploads/InthePublicInterest_InequalityReport_Sept2016.pdf
In the Public Interest. How Privatization Increases Inequality, Part 4, Race to the Bottom. 2016. http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/wp-content/uploads/InthePublicInterest_Inequality_Sec4_Sept2016.pdf
Woolf S. Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the US, 1959-2017. JAMA. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2756187
Progressive Labor Party. Transit Workers Flex Their Power. 11-23-2019. http://www.plp.org/challenge/2019/11/23/transit-strikers-flex-their-power.html