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Last Monday, police arrested 12 airline catering services employees< protesting at Reagan National Airport. The workers were demanding higher pay and better healthcare. Meanwhile, dozens of bus routes in Northern Virginia have been shut down for the past month as striking bus drivers fight against WMATA's increasing privatization of its operations. As the busy holiday travel season kicks into high-gear, striking union workers have impacted D.C.-area transportation both on the ground and in the air.
We discuss the reasons behind the strikes, the history of unions in our area and the public's perception, as well as potential paths forward.
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For those outside of Northern Virginia, it may be surprising to hear protests that began before Halloween are still underway. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is striking against Metro privatization, and the union's president says that the group's members are in it for a marathon not a sprint. The protests have affected roughly 6 percent of Metro's bus routes. The strike began on October 24th and shows no signs of letting up.
KOJO NNAMDIAnd starting last week airline workers at Reagan National Airport are also striking for better pay and healthcare. Joining me in studio to discuss the latest is Jordan Pascale. He is the transportation reporter at WAMU. Jordan, I'll start with you. You've been covering this month-long union strike against the WMATA contractor. Bring us up to speed on what's taken place.
JORDAN PASCALEYeah, Kojo, like you said, it was before Halloween. And I remember the press release came out during game two of the World Series. So if that, you know, (laugh) kind of gives you an idea of how long ago it was, but this fight has been really brewing for a lot longer than that. Starting in 2017, Metro was kind of mulling the idea of privatizing some services including the new Silver Line extension. They thought it would be a good idea to save personnel costs on retirement and healthcare, that sort of thing. And the union really bristled at that idea.
JORDAN PASCALEAnd then last August Metro contracted out a new bus garage called the Cinder Bed Road Garage. That serves 18 routes in Northern Virginia and serves about 8,000 trips a day. So workers there last year organized under the local Amalgamated Transit Union and have been negotiating a contract for about a year, most of this year. And so they voted to authorize the strike in August and then went on strike a few months later.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Brian Wivell, political organizer for the Amalgamated Transit Union, ATU Local 689. Brian, thank you for joining us.
BRIAN WIVELLThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs a member of Local 689 what do you say led to this strike and what would be your ideal outcome?
WIVELLAbsolutely. So we have been on strike due to the fact that the company has been consistently committing unfair labor practices that has made it nearly impossible to get the type of agreement that we believe these workers deserve. But some of the major issues that have been motivating these striking workers for 40 days have been the fact that they receive at a top wage rate $12 an hour less than a Metro bus operator for driving the same routes that Metro bus operators used to drive in the same uniform, in the same buses with the same passengers.
WIVELLSo that $12 an hour really makes a difference. And then in addition to that they have a $6,000 deductible for their insurance. And also they have a retirement plan that's not worth the paper it's printed on. So these workers have been out there basically with one simple demand, which is either give them the ability to have a collective bargaining agreement that brings them up to parody with WMATA workers or kick out Transdev and just have WMATA hire them directly to do the exact same work they've already been doing.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Transdev. That is the French-based contractor with Metro that runs this operation here. We reached out to Transdev and they responded yesterday with a statement. It read in part, quoting here, "Mr. Jackson would like you to believe," that would be Raymond Jackson, who is the president of ATU 689, "Mr. Jackson would like you to believe Metro drivers make $12 more than Transdev drivers. This is untrue. Upon the award of the bus services contract in 2018 all of Transdev's employees were new hires. Each person is still in their first year of work. They received $18 in training and $20 an hour once they successfully completed training and continue to do so. While rebargain a new contract according to the ATU 689 union board in 2018, WMATA bus operators received $16 an hour in training. And once they successfully completed training they moved to $19.68 an hour," end quote. What would your response be to that?
WIVELLAbsolutely. I mean, the thing that they're ultimately ignoring is top wage rates. It is correct that the operators at this facility make $20 an hour and Metro bus operators make a similar wage rate in the beginning. But what ultimately matters is what they make next year, the year after that and the year after that. And so far if we're going by what the company has offered at the bargaining table, we're talking about a grand total of an increase in wage rates of 20 cents so that their salary as of next year would be $20.20.
WIVELLThat's why these operators have been out on strike -- operators, pardon me, and mechanics and utility workers have been out on strike for 40 days, is because they think these wage rates are a slap in the face to their dignity.
NNAMDIJordan, this strike has, in fact, sparked a debate about Metro's move toward privatizing more of its operations. What does Metro currently outsource to third party companies, and is there a push to privatize more?
PASCALEYeah, I mean there's a lot of things that they contract out for and, you know, did some janitorial services at some point. You know, things like replacing roofs or air conditioning and that sort of thing are all things that they've contracted out for just this year. But similar, the public facing things that they've contracted out are things like MetroAccess Paratransit. The Cinder Bed Road Garage obviously is the main issue now.
PASCALEAnd they do want to do more privatization in the future with the Silver Line, which is hopefully going to open next year. But they think they'll be able to save money if they have someone privately run that operation.
NNAMDIAs far as the rider experience is concerned, does it matter who is operating the vehicles or offering the services?
PASCALEI think it does in certain ways. I think people see Metro on the side of a bus and assume Metro is responsible. You know, I think it's kind of created an added layer of maybe confusion or communication issues. You're not really sure, who's responsible. And it kind of muddies the water and accountability in some ways, I think.
NNAMDIBrian, would your members be better served if they were Metro or WMATA employees, and how so?
WIVELLAbsolutely. So one of the first things, when we went out on strike the workers, their demand was to simply, you know, get us wage parody, get us benefit parody. As the strike has gone on, many of them are actually sick and tired of working for Transdev itself and have started to make very clear that they would prefer to be full WMATA employees with all of the benefits that come with that.
WIVELLSpeaking of Jordan's earlier point about lack of accountability, we'll actually note that any time a person calls into the customer service line or tries to complain about a route that is operated by Transdev, they're actually told that this is -- they're calling the wrong complaint line. They're told to contact Transdev any time there's an issue with one of those buses. So we think it's very important that for even rider accountability that they're given the option of kind of dealing with a normal WMATA Metro bus service.
NNAMDIWe also reached out to the Metro board and were told that no one was available to join us for today's conversation. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about some other labor actions that have been taking place in this region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about job actions in this region with Jordan Pascale, transportation reporter at WAMU. Brian Wivell is the political organizer for the Amalgamated Transit Union, ATU Local 689. Also joining us in studio is Margarita Alonzo, deputy organizing director of the Service Employees International Union. Thank you for joining us.
MARGARITA ALONZOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Tenae Stover is a member of Unite Here Local 23 and an airline employee at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Tenae Stover, thank you for joining us.
TENAE STOVERThank you.
NNAMDIJordan, the bus driver strikes, as I said, are not the only labor protests that we've seen in this region recently. Last week during the height of the Thanksgiving travel rush, airline catering service workers protested four airports including Reagan National. What led to those strikes?
PASCALEI mean, the same thing that leads to a lot of strikes. It's, you know, better pay, better benefits, better working conditions, that sort of thing. This is a little complicated, because the airlines contract out for these catering services, so the negotiations are between the subcontractor and the workers. But the workers say that the airlines have more sway and could kind of help fix the issue. But the airlines largely want to stay out of it. And that kind of mirrors how WMATA has operated with these subcontractors as well, kind of saying, it's between these two parties and, you know, we'll step out.
NNAMDITenae, you were one of the airline employees striking last week. Why did the group feel the protest was necessary and what do you think the airlines, and I think in particular American Airlines, can do to help?
STOVERSo as he mentioned, Sky Chefs is a subcontractor, but American Airlines is our biggest client. American Airlines is where Sky Chefs get the money. We feel that it's very important to publicize what we did on Tuesday was not a strike, but it was to publicize what the workers at LSG Sky Chefs nationwide all over the country have to deal with with the low pay wages, the very expensive health insurance that we have to pay, and then us having no pension.
STOVERFor me, I was very affected by it. I was evicted from my place two years ago working at LSG Sky Chefs, only making $8.40 an hour. Since then, now in 2019 I make $13 an hour. That was 2, $3 increase that we received from American Airlines from the airport because of the wage that they increased, but we're asking for more, $13 is not enough.
STOVERThe lowest paid worker at LSG Sky Chefs makes $9.85 an hour. And while the economy is rising, we're still being left behind. Sky Chef has been forgotten about for years and we're fed up with it. Now we want to publicize what the workers are dealing with. On top of the low pay we pay very expensive health insurance.
NNAMDIHow has the cost of your health insurance and the lack of pensions affected you and your coworkers?
STOVERFor me, single, I pay $60 a week. That's 2, $300 a month coming out of my paycheck. We still have to co-pay. Certain deductibles aren't covered under the health plan. Workers with families have to pay $150 a week. That's almost 400, $500 a month coming out of their pocket just for health insurance.
NNAMDIMargarita, you represent SEIU, a labor union representing workers from the public sectors, property services and healthcare sectors. How do strikes in your view impact the public perception of unions?
ALONZOI think strikes create an opportunity for the public to hear the stories of the workers. It helps elevate the situation that the workers are facing day in and day out. Something to keep in mind is that the majority of jobs created in our country in the last 30 years are both low-wage and low-hour jobs, which means in our communities people are really struggling. The examples that have been shared are real.
ALONZOWhen we talk to our members at the airport, we also have members at the airport, workers talk about fearing homelessness, because the wages, even though they've gone up and workers have organized and have succeeded at raising the wages, it's still not enough, because in D.C. it's so expensive to live here. And so when workers strike and when workers, working men and women take action, it helps the public hear what's going on in a situation and understand what their struggle is and how they can support to help improve the situation.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of the members of the public, who might feel inconvenienced about this because residents of this region tend to support unions in polling data. Do you think that changes when workplace actions or strikes occur?
ALONZONot in my experience, no. In my experience the public supports workers, who are taking action because they understand that they're part of our community. Workers, working men and women strike, because they're trying to provide for their families. At the airport when we started organizing, we found men and women who had to have three jobs, and they were living in their cars and living at the airport and would never see their children, right.
ALONZOAnd we, in our community here, want schools to do better, children to do better. We want less crime, but we have to allow our citizens in our community to have good jobs, to be able to work one job and to make ends meet, to be able to spend time with their children, and so when workers take action that's why they do because they're trying to improve their situation.
NNAMDITenae, when you and your co-workers were taking action last month, what was the response you were getting from travelers?
STOVERWe had support from travelers. They did not know what was going on and that's why I say it is necessary for us to publicize what it is that we're dealing with at Sky Chef. But we had them supporting us. They definitely understood and agreed that we do and we should be getting paid what we're asking for. We're asking for 15. We're asking for affordable health insurance. I think any workers understands and agrees to that that as long as the workers are there and they're the ones who are raising the increase with the company, then the workers deserve to get the 15, to get better health insurance, to have a better lifestyle.
NNAMDIBrian Wivell, same question to you.
WIVELLAbsolutely. I mean, we've been blown away by the amount of public support from riders and from community members that we've received. Of course, you know, we did not taking this decision to go out on strike lightly. We recognize that this is, you know, not just our jobs, not just our members' jobs on the line here, but the thousands of riders that are out there, that they would also be deeply affected by this.
WIVELLAnd that's why, you know, as a bus operator you're in direct contact with, you know, people every day. And many of them said that actually they had people reach out and say, you know, where have you been, where are you, I've missed you. And that's part of the reason why many of our operators, as they look for the strike to be over, they say, you know, one of the things they miss the most is seeing their passengers every day.
NNAMDIJordan, D.C. region, does it have a history of being pro union?
PASCALEYou know, the guests might have a little bit better opinion, but, I mean, I came from a lot of right-to-work states and so I've seen a lot more union activity here than I have anywhere else. I was looking at the Bureau of Labor statistics and they said about 12 percent of D.C. workers are unionized. And I think New York might have the most with about 25 percent union membership. You know, that being said, D.C. does have some of the better labor laws in the country but maybe someone else has a little bit better knowledge on that than I do.
NNAMDIWell, last week Virginia Governor Ralph Northam says he does not support repeal of his state's right-to-work law. How does this law's continued existence impact local unions?
PASCALEYeah, so basically it means that participation in the union can't be a condition for employment ...
NNAMDI... of employment ...
PASCALE...in the state, yeah. For instance, I know for some of my friends in media companies in Virginia are unionized, but not everyone is a union member. And I think unions kind of think that maybe weakens bargaining positions a little bit. So, yeah, I think just the strength of the union having everyone instead of just partial.
NNAMDIBrian, not that I have to ask but what is the ATU's position ...
NNAMDI... on right-to-work laws?
WIVELLSo, I mean, it's so much more than just about whether you have an open or closed shop within a unit. Right-to-work laws are ...
NNAMDII should explain for our listeners who may not know what you're talking about, an open shop means that everyone, who works in that institution does not have to join a union. A closed shop means that everyone who works in that institution has to join the union, because they will be benefitting from the agreements that the union has made with the employer.
WIVELLAbsolutely. And part of the reason why these right-to-work laws are so damaging to unions is it actually has nothing to do with dues collection or open shop, closed shop laws. When we first went out to organize the Cinder Bed Rod property, we were thrown off the property by management, kicked out, had the police called on us. And one of the first things that the police officer said to us was, this is a right-to-work state. That is completely unintelligible. That makes no sense. That has absolutely nothing to do with right-to-work laws. But it's because the general public understanding of right-to-work laws is that they are anti worker. And if you are in a right-to-work state, you believe that you have fewer union benefits or union protections or union rights.
WIVELLAnd that's why it's important that we get rid of right-to-work laws, because it's more than just about dues collection or open shop. It's about making sure that we actually establish Virginia as a pro-worker state.
NNAMDISo you were disappointed with Governor Northam's statement.
WIVELLI was not shocked but I was extremely disappointed and regard ...
NNAMDIWhy were you not shocked?
WIVELLI think anyone that's voted for George Bush twice hadn't made themselves perfectly clear on this issue. And Governor Northam had publically stated a couple of times that he was kind of on the fence on this issue. But I think it's important to recognize that the labor movement doesn't take its cues from the governor. The labor movement takes its cues from its members. And our members have been demanding for decades, since 1947, that we're going to go against this right-to-work law.
NNAMDIMargarita, what is SEIU's position on right-to-work laws?
ALONZOWe think that they need to go away, that they need to end. We were really disappointed when Northam came out in that way. Virginia, according to -- I have a thing here on (unintelligible) dead last in the ranking of best place to work in America in terms of like workers' rights, worker protection, worker safety.
ALONZOAnd working men and women in this country want to have better jobs, better protection. And that's really important for our community. Right now the folks that are making money in places at the airport -- the airport generates a bunch of income and that money is going to the wealthiest people, to the Delta CEO, to the CEO of contractors instead of going to our communities. And then our communities suffer, because of that. And so when we have laws like right-to-work they make it harder for workers to organize. It makes inequality grow.
NNAMDITenae, do you believe the airline workers at Reagan National would have been able to carry out the job action last week without the backing of Unite Air Local 23?
STOVERNo. Thankfully we do have the union there to protect us. That's the reason why, like Margarita's saying, the right-to-work, it does need to go away. Like, we're against anyone, who doesn't allow the workers to express their feelings, express what they're going through. And to have unions on your side is the best thing to happen to workers.
NNAMDISo what's next for the workers who took the job action last week? What happens next?
STOVERWhat happens next is us to continue to fight, to continue to be at the airports expressing our feelings until we get what we're asking for. They haven't put anything on the table. It's not right for us to not get what we're asking for. As I mentioned, statistically they have made billions of dollars in profit off of the work that the workers do off of our backs and not putting it in our pockets. And so until we get it we're going to continue to be out at the airports fighting.
NNAMDIAre there active negotiations taking place at all now, Margarita?
ALONZOSo our members, along with the members from Unite Here, are talking to the (unintelligible) board members to raise the wages. We did that a few years ago and the wages went -- they're going to go all the way up to $12.75 in January. But we're pushing for the wages to go up to 15 and beyond, because we believe that's what a living wage is in this area. We all know it's very, very expensive to live in D.C. and workers are still struggling.
ALONZOAnd we had a roundtable meeting and workers shared how hard it is to make ends meet. One worker shared really passionately about how he struggles every month to pay his rent and his bills. And he did the math for us and his monthly rent of $800 on a wage of $12 an hour is very hard. And he's scared that he will be homeless.
ALONZOAnd before we organized, we met workers who came in and out of homelessness. And that has gone down. We hear those stories less and less but workers are still really struggling. And the wages need to be fair. People need to make a living wage.
NNAMDIAnd finally this for you, Brian, what do you think are the misconceptions that people have about unions?
WIVELLFirst of all, I think the misconceptions about unions are that you can get, you know, reliable wage increases, protections on the job any other way. I mean, fundamentally we've watched as this country has, you know, become the wealthiest nation in human history. And people are doing better than ever but those benefits are not necessarily, you know, trickling down to working people. And that's because the engine of prosperity for working people has always been the labor movement. And any of, you know, the quote, unquote "good times" that working people had in this country were because of high union density, and the ability of workers to take action to make sure that they got what they need.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Brian Wivell is the political organizer for the Amalgamated Transit Union, ATU Local 689. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMargarita Alonzo is the deputy organizing director of the Service Employees International Union. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITenae Stover is a member of Unite Here Local 23 and an airline employee at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Jordan Pascale is the transportation reporter here at WAMU. Jordan, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIThis conversation about unions was produced by Laura Spitalniak. And today's segment about Amazon's housing deal was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, 'tis the season for holiday shows, We hear from some of the artists behind beloved winter performances in the D.C. region. Plus Washington fashion, it's not an oxymoron. We hear from some people in the industry on how this town can be fashion forward. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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