ATU Local 689 answers your questions
A few weeks ago, we invited readers to pose questions to ATU Local 689, the union representing most Metro employees. Their political and legislative director, Lateefah Williams, was unfortunately very sick for a few weeks (but better now). Here are her answers to your questions.
Just one guy's experience, but when interacting with Metro operators (and other employees), I'm treated at best like a nuisance, and at worst, with outright contempt. When interacting with DC Circulator drivers, I'm treated like a customer.I am sorry that you have had an unpleasant experience when interacting with some WMATA employees. Union membership status is not the reason for any perceived customer service differences between Metro and Circulator drivers because both are unionized. Metro bus operators and other frontline WMATA employees are unionized through ATU Local 689 and Circulator bus operators are unionized through ATU Local 1764. I am not in a position to know if there are differences in the Circulator's workforce, management practices, or systems.
The only difference I can discern between these two groups is the union membership status. Are there other differences in the workforces, management practices, or systems that I should be aware of?
At the specialty level, could the union do more to create a successful operation for WMATA instead of waiting for non-union WMATA officials to hand down directives? I.e. take ownership of the issues themselves and manage up?The union does take ownership of issues that directly affect the union. Union officials stay in constant contact with WMATA management and offer suggestions for improvement when the need arises. An example of this would be the recent campaign to address the issue of bus operator assaults. Local 689 brought unprecedented attention to this issue through grassroots efforts (leafleting at bus and rail stations), media interviews (television and print media), and meetings with WMATA executives to discuss the union's concerns and propose solutions. As a result, WMATA is taking new steps to ensure that bus operator and rider safety is paramount. The union is actively following up with WMATA officials to make sure the new measures are effective and properly implemented.
Who should be held accountable for poor service. The union employees, or wmata management? Why?All interested parties should be held accountable for poor service, including both individual employees and management. The union actively encourages all of its members to treat members of the public in a professional and courteous manner. The union has also asked WMATA to include customer service training to address shortcomings that some individuals may have. When new employees are hired, they are trained to perform their particular task (i.e. operate a bus), but they are not given customer service training, even though interacting with the public is as important as properly operating a bus. The union has recognized this shortcoming and has asked WMATA management to implement mandatory customer service training for new hires.
Is it appropriate for workers to sandbag when their contract demands are in limbo or not to their liking?No, it is not appropriate and I have not seen or heard of any incidents where that has occurred.
What is proper percentage share of wmata revenues (all revenues) related to salary and benefits vs. operations and infrastructure maintenance?I am not in a position to answer this question without researching the issue, but the answer should be available in the latest WMATA budget.
I want to know how they can justify defending Metro employees who commit acts of violence or simply pure stupidity and get them back on the job. Punching McGruff? There are too many stories of employees behaving badly and then getting their jobs reinstated. The union should NEVER defend such behavior.Every member is entitled to request that his or her claim be sent to arbitration. If a member requests that his/her claim be arbitrated, the union officers then review the claim and make a recommendation to the membership at the next union meeting. At that meeting, that member requesting the arbitration also has the right to state his or her case to the membership. The union membership then votes on whether or not to arbitrate the claim. If the membership votes to arbitrate a claim, the union has no choice but to arbitrate the claim.
If someone gets his or her job back after arbitration, that generally means that there was not enough proof that the alleged offense was committed, that the offense that was committed did not give rise to termination, or that WMATA did not follow proper procedures in terminating the individual. The role of the union is similar to the role of a defense attorney in this situation.
How can the union and WMATA prevent wage, pension, and healthcare costs from rising faster than regional GDP? If you believe that wage, pension, or healthcare costs should rise faster than GDP, please outline your vision of how WMATA would continue to function properly without depending on increasing federal/state subsidies or fares that grow faster than regional wages. What would justify increased subsidization or disproportionate wage increases?Our goal is to ensure that our members receive wage increases consistent with the increase in the cost of living. I don't know that we can prevent costs from rising disproportionately, but WMATA should not balance its budget on the back of its workers. When contract disputes arise, WMATA's contract with Local 689 and the WMATA Compact both state that disputes should be resolved by final and binding arbitration. In the current contract negotiations, the neutral arbitrator ruled in the Union's favor and now the Judge has affirmed the arbitrator's decision. Final and binding arbitration must be respected.
Many believe the "pick" system for maintenance decreases safety and increases maintenance costs. Do you believe that we should keep the current system? If so, why? If you do not believe we should keep the current system, how would you change the "pick" system to improve safety and reliability, particularly on escalators and elevators?The "pick" system does not decrease safety, so I do not believe that safety is a reason for abandoning the "pick" system. All of the mechanics are supposed to be sufficiently trained to perform the necessary tasks. If there is reason to believe a mechanic is not sufficiently trained, management should take steps to ensure that the individual is properly trained and proficient in his or her duties.
As an irregular visitor to DC, even I have been able to spot the pattern of WMATA subway station attendants who all but roll their eyes and say "take a hike" when customers approach the booth to ask a question about service, fares, or other normal customer information questions. Frankly, I have found these responses to be the rule, not the exception when I am in DC. This isn't a problem I experience in NYC, Boston, Chicago, or other major cities I travel to with unionized workforces.There is not a system that places individuals suited for back office work as station managers. All station managers were previously bus operators who were promoted to the position of station manager. Thus, it's possible that a station manager may be better suited to be a bus operator, but bus operators, as I'm sure you are aware, also interact with the public. People are not promoted to a station manager from a position that does not deal with the public.
With bus operators, seniority-based runpicking sometimes gives the best operators the chance to pick the easiest runs, where it should be the other way around. (and I support additional pay for superior-performing bus operators to encourage them to take challenging runs)
My question to the union is this: is there some similar incentive with unintended consequences that places employees who may be better suited for back office work than customer interactions, and places them in subway booths?
If not, how can the union make more progress here?
Hm. Looks like the Union is following Dan Stessel's lead, and building its reputation by actually communicating with its critics. I welcome actual dialog, so yay!That is a decision for Metro management to make. The union has never expressly advocated for our members to work excessive overtime and in the chart that the Washington Examiner published listing the top 10 positions working overtime, only one of the positions listed covered workers represented by Local 689. Also, there are regulations in Local 689's contract that require members to have eight hours of rest.
I can't think of a great way to phrase it into a concise question, but I'd love to know what the ATU's position is on overtime. Every year, WMATA's overtime costs come out to a shockingly large number, and there's an inevitable debate about safety, staffing levels, "necessary evils," and worker compensation.
Airlines and FRA-regulated railroads have rather strict policies relating to the number of consecutive hours that their workers can be on the job, along with the amount of downtime that must be taken between shifts. Should Metro be adopting stronger regulations along these lines, even if it would translate to a de-facto pay cut for many ATU members?
Does the union mandate the "senior escalator" thing as part of their contract or is this just something WMATA has practiced?Management gives out the job assignments. The contract does state that seniority applies in picking the reporting location, but that only applies if there are multiple locations available for that individual's skills. Additionally, while this is the employee's reporting location, after the employee reports to that location, a supervisor can still send the technician anywhere he or she is needed.
Everybody understands performance starts and ends with high quality management. But in between are transit workers who need to be accountable to management. Transit Authority management has deserved--and gotten!--its share of criticism. No one expects significant reforms at the Union- and workforce-level without corresponding reforms at management. That said:I don't know of any union rules that hamper good service. Good service is something that the union strives for and encourages its members to provide.
Could you identify one or two existing union rules that hamper management's goal of good service? Why do those rules exist? Are there better ways to achieve the goals without compromising performance? What is the union doing to work with management to lessen the impact?
Management accountability requires the threat of consequences and, regrettably, firings. What is the best way to fairly, but quickly, fire union workers when management determines it's necessary?Union workers cannot be fired for arbitrary reasons. If there is just cause to terminate an employee, then management can terminate that employee and a just termination should be able to withstand any possible arbitration that may occur. As for whether it will occur "quickly," it depends on the circumstances of the termination and whether the employee challenges the termination and seeks to arbitrate the matter.
Will the union trade part of their deferred compensation (pension and OPEBs) for higher salaries now?No, because the union has already made concessions in the areas of pension and wages.
Can you imagine any conditions under which pay increases would be linked to measurable increases in productivity, customer satisfaction, etc.?I can envision WMATA giving bonuses to exemplary employees.
Would you join management in advocating for issues that improve the region's transit-friendliness (i.e., not just more money for capital and operations, but TOD, bus priority, pedestrian facilities, etc...)?Local 689 already advocates for these issues. While we usually do not coordinate our advocacy with WMATA management, we are very pro-transit and actively advocate for measures that are beneficial to mass transit. We testify on behalf of and push for legislation in Maryland, DC, and Virginia.
During the past Maryland Legislative Session, I testified on behalf of the union in support of Senate Bill 623, Maryland Department of Transportation- Transit Review and Evaluation. This bill requires the Maryland Department of Transportation to review and evaluate the best practices for transit priority treatments, and to identify priority treatment corridors. In other words, it is a step towards ensuring that the transit priority treatments that are eventually implemented will best serve the goal of allowing buses to travel through certain corridors more efficiently (bus lanes). The testimony also highlighted other benefits of transit priority measures, such as reducing congestion and reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
We also advocate for and are part of coalitions that support and advocate for transit oriented development. We strongly support development around Metro stations and are very active in advocating for such development.
Would you invest union pension fund resources in TOD projects in the region?We do not have the authority to invest union pension fund resources in transit oriented development (TOD) projects, but we will continue to advocate for TOD. Feel free to email me if there are any TOD initiatives that you believe it will be helpful to have the union's support. While I am not promising that we will take part in every initiative that is presented to us, we will evaluate any proposal and if we support it and are able to make the time commitment to engage in the issue, then we will make every attempt to do so.
i would ask the union how they managed to make a transit system that (compared to other rapid transit systems in the US) is brand new into a laughably dysfunctional and increasingly dangerous messThe overwhelming majority of our union members are well-trained and very professional. While, unfortunately, there are a few exceptions, the majority of our members take pride in going to work and doing their job in a professional, competent manner.
i would also ask the union where its mechanics received their training, as they are evidently unable to master insanely complicated and difficult tasks such as "replacing escalators" and "driving trains without killing passengers"
i would then ask the union how they can possibly countenance the idea of any sort of pay increase when they are so manifestly incompetent and incapable
What is the union's turn-over rate? How many people are fired annually? And if this number is significantly lower than it is in the private sector (which I strongly suspect it is), why is this? Is it because the union's employees are especially productive and hard workers, or is it because it's virtually impossible to fire someone, even for doing their job poorly?I am not in a position to answer this question. Even if the number of people fired annually was readily available (which it is not), I do not have information on the corresponding rate in the private sector.
With the current high number of vacancies for both bus drivers and train operators, why is it in the contract that train operators come from the ranks of bus drivers? It seems like a large waste of time and money. You fill up the bus vacancies then rob those positions to fill the train vacancies. I'm sure there must be people out who have no desire to drive a bus or operate a train and would be happier to do what it is they really want to do, drive a bus or a train. I think the two are completely different animals with the exception of customer service.The contract prioritizes the order that train vacancies must be filled. Bus operators are given first priority when vacancies arise. Metro has never had to go outside the bus operator ranks to fill train operator positions.
Correct me if I'm wrong here. Two months of training for a bus operator, two months of training for a train operator. I would think that by taking this out of the contract, even if only on a temporary basis, would fill the vacancies on both sides much faster.
I have always believed that people who desire a certain job make better, stable and happier employees.
Has the seniority system proved to be the best way to promote union workers? What are ways to reform the seniority system so that it looks at merit AND tenure?Employees are not promoted solely on seniority. Seniority is one factor that is used and that may cause one qualified candidate to be promoted over another similarly qualified candidate. If two candidates are not similarly qualified, there are mechanisms in place that allow for the most senior qualified candidate to be promoted.
There are rumors that some people have cheated on the promotion exams, including some people who have been promoted to supervisor.Management has control over the promotion process and the process to become a supervisor. We do not represent people in the process of applying to become supervisors. If someone feels that they were wronged in that process, then they can file a complaint with the civil rights office or other appropriate office within WMATA.
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