Posts about Labor
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.
We've had a lot of debates here about the role of the transit union. Does it play an important role in pushing for good and safe working conditions and a reasonable wage for skilled employees, or does it just protect rude workers and make Metro's costs unsustainably high?
The union wants to talk to you and answer your questions. On Monday, ATU Local 689 is hosting a town hall meeting. It starts at 6 pm at the MLK Library, 901 G Street, NW, Room A-5.
The union's political and legislative director, Lateefah Williams, writes, "The goal is to give the riding public an opportunity to meet with union officers and members, engage in dialogue, and ask any questions that riders may have. It will also give riders and union members the opportunity to get to know one another and to dispel any myths or misunderstandings."
Even if you can't attend, Williams agreed to take a number of your questions and write up answers which we will post next week. Post in the comments the questions you'd like to ask the union.
We'll pick the best questions and send them to Williams and the other union officials. Your question is more likely to get answered if it's genuinely trying to explore an issue or find out information, rather than just throwing out some accusatory (or sycophantic) statement and then just asking, "what do you think about THAT?"
What are good topics? Williams writes,
The union is aware that the public has many safety concerns that the public wants addressed. As we approach the second anniversary of the tragic red line crash that claimed nine lives and injured dozens more, we want to ensure that the public and the workers move forward as partners to ensure that everything is being done to prioritize safety.
The union is committed to taking active steps to ensure that the safety of all who ride or operate Metro trains and buses is prioritized. We look forward to hearing comments from the public concerning safety issues and what more the system or the workers can do to make riders feel safe when riding the system. Along the same lines, workers will also share their experiences concerning safety.
In addition to safety concerns, customer relation issues also come up frequently. It is the union's position that all of its members should treat members of the public politely and with the utmost respect. While we honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of our members do that, we do realize that there are times when a small minority of employees have not upheld the high level of customer service that we all strive towards.
To that end, this will give both riders and employees the opportunity to talk directly to one another and learn each other's perspective regarding occasional break-downs in communication between the two groups. This will also give both riders and workers a chance to directly hear how certain actions are interpreted.
Finally, funding and fare issues are also a concern for both the union and riders. The union has been very active during the budget season to ensure that WMATA is properly funded and that the entity does not have to resort to service cuts and fare increases. To accomplish that, we have been active in the budget process for the WMATA budget and the budget processes of the local jurisdictions that fund WMATA.
This year, we were particularly active in the budget process for the District of Columbia because that was the jurisdiction that was not able to fully subsidize WMATA this budget cycle. We encouraged our members to attend the budget hearings and we testified at several budget hearings. Funding and fare increases serve as the best opportunity for the public and the workers to work together. While we work with numerous coalition groups, including rider groups, to achieve common goals, our (riders and workers) collective voices will be that much stronger if we unite, on a larger scale, around common issues.
Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a process to build better communication between workers and riders. I also hope that it serves to let the public know that the union wants to work with riders to ensure that their needs are met. This is a public forum, so please disseminate this information to your networks. This dialogue is just one step in the process to truly ensure that WMATA runs that safest, most efficient transportation system in the world.
The proposed Walmart on New York Avenue NE has made some progress from a terrible initial design, such as moving buildings toward the street, improving public space, and adding a Capital Bikeshare station. However, many questions remain, including how the development will deal with the day laborers that it will almost certainly attract.
Currently in Ward 5, there is a robust market for day laborers in the parking lot shared by the Home Depot, Giant, and TJ Maxx. Everyday there are dozens of guys hanging out in the parking lot and on the edges of the property, looking for work.
A few years ago, there was a push, admirably led by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr., to build a "Multicultural Training & Employment Center". This effort died on the vine when faced with opposition from the community in and around Brentwood.
That's highly unfortunate, given that the problem of unorganized people standing around the parking lot persists today. The center would have brought, among other goals, "An organized system linking contractors and individuals seeking work from contractors at the Home Depot site."
Given the rumors we've heard of Lowe's sharing the site with Walmart (and the people you can already spot selling bottled water and flowers in the median at New York Ave NE and Bladensburg or Montana), are accommodations being made to give these people a place to look for work with dignity?
It doesn't have to be a palace, but a few resources, including a bathroom and a way to get out of the way of bad weather, would probably go pretty far toward making the day laborer scene more appealing for the stores, customers, and the day laborers.
And there are people who will be against offering any accommodation to day laborers, based on the fact that many are in the United States illegally. While it may be true that many are here illegally, they are also still people, and ignoring the problem will not make fewer day laborers congregate around places where contractors shop. If some accommodation is made for them, it would provide a huge benefit to the customers and neighbors, not just the laborers themselves.
It can be difficult and dangerous to navigate your car around people loitering in a parking lot and unattractive to have dozens of people congregate around the perimeter of the property. We can bury our heads in the sand if we're determined to do so a second time, but it won't make our problems go away.
Councilmember Thomas now chairs the DC Council's Economic Development Committee. He has helped make Walmart's second attempt to open a store in DC much less adversarial than its first. So will Thomas make sure that day laborers are thought of if and when this new development is built? Will he work with the developers to make sure they include shelter and resources for the day laborers who will almost certainly congregate on the premises? Will the developer pay for the center or will the DC government be asked to pay (as it was proposed in 2007, though the funds were never used)?
Sometimes schools unfairly try to fire a teacher who doesn't deserve it, but it's clear that there are a number of bad teachers in schools who do deserve firing. Unfortunately, up to now, most teachers' unions have steadfastly fought performance-based evaluation systems.
This strategy puts unions in opposition to the public interest, and diminishes their moral authority and public support for the good things unions can do to fight unjust managers or advocate for decent living wages for people.
Rather than stand up for the status quo, unions should be fighting to design a fairer evaluation system that's not susceptible to a single, perhaps-vindictive vice principal getting rid of someone they simply don't like, but which still allows a school to remove most or all of its bad teachers and improve its educational quality without excessive bureaucracy.
Weingarten's proposal evaluates teachers on several factors, including but not exclusively based on standardized tests. Teachers who score low would get improvement plans designed by administrators and some expert teachers. The administrators, experts, and possibly an arbitrator would then decide after a period of time whether the teacher has improved.
The Times quotes some experts from different ideological backgrounds who have specific quibbles with the details. Whether this is the right process or whether it needs tweaks, this is a huge step forward to making the debate about how to properly and fairly evaluate instead of whether to do it at all. And it's great that a major union is agreeing to come to that table.
Perhaps this is happening because they are under attack like never before. Republicans in Wisconsin tried to take away even the basic ability to organize, and New York and Newark mayors Mike Bloomberg and Cory Booker have proposed objective criteria for firing teachers. Weingarten came across as resisting even the most basic steps to improve schools in the film Waiting for Superman.
Those pressures might be working out for the best if they have made teachers' unions realize they have to be partners with the public in making schools better, not defending their worst-performing members at the expense of kids. Other public sector unions should follow suit.
A federal judge has ruled in WMATA's favor on one stage of a lawsuit over arbitrator-awarded pay increases to union employees.
By law, WMATA's pay and benefits for union employees are decided by arbitration. In November 2009, an arbitrator awarded workers a 3% retroactive raise and two additional annual 3% raises.
WMATA decided to appeal under a law that said in essence that arbitration can't award salaries the authority can't afford or which "adversely affect the public welfare." Since pay increases have created budget gaps that threaten service cuts, they argued the award did violate these provisions.
According to a press release WMATA just issued, a judge agreed:
The judge agreed with the transit Authority that the Kasher Supplemental Opinion issued on June 22, 2010, did not comply with the National Capital Area Interest Arbitration Standards Act, a federal statute which applies to interest arbitration decisions involving WMATA.It sounds like the issue isn't settled, but WMATA has won one round.
The judge directed the Kasher arbitration board to submit a Supplemental Opinion that complies with the Standards Act within 40 days. Upon submission of the Supplemental opinion, the parties will have 15 days to submit motions stating their respective positions, and the Judge will then issue a final decision in this matter on an expedited basis.
The National Capital Area Interest Arbitration Standards Act prohibits an arbitrator from rendering an award that provides for salaries and other benefits that exceed the interstate compact agency's funding ability; allows an increase in pay rates only if any costs to the agency do not adversely affect the public welfare; and requires the arbitrator to issue a written award that demonstrates all of the factors in the Act.
Unsuck DC Metro uncovered some troubling facts about the way WMATA's union rules may be encouraging poor escalator performance.
A "pick" system lets escalator mechanics bid on escalators to maintain, with preference by seniority. As a result, some senior mechanics may choose escalators in good working order "so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it's under their 'care,'" as Unsuck put it. When the escalator starts having problems, they can simply pick different escalators.
This system also reduces incentives for more capable mechanics without high seniority to do a good job, since bringing an escalator up to tip top shape will only entice the more senior mechanics to bid to take it away.
Most likely only a few "bad apples" actually slack off so seriously. Most mechanics at Metro probably try to do the best job they can day after day. But at Metro, like in many public agencies, even a small minority of poor employees gives the entire agency a bad reputation, and union rules make it remarkably difficult to fire them.
Union rules also form one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to removing poorly performing project managers and engineers in DDOT's engineering department, IPMA, as I recommended. The standard way of laying off people, a Reduction In Force (RIF), requires laying off the newest employees, who are often not the ones that are most problematic.
Terminating individuals for cause takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. DDOT actually did go through some substantial staff cuts and used many tools at its disposal to target the cuts to poor employees rather than just young employees, but in a number of cases they had to take some employees back and pay them years of back salary, further draining limited budgets.
And as we all know, the WTU just elected a new president who ran on a platform of opposing the IMPACT teacher ratings and the contract provisions to fire poorly performing teachers. IMPACT might be imperfect, but overall the new contract got rid of the worst performing teachers. That's exactly what needs to happen.
Before we all go calling for the elimination of unions, let me emphasize that I believe unions have an important role. The labor market is not fair and doesn't work on its own. In most economic times, there are more people who want jobs than there are jobs, and that means the equilibrium price for labor in most industries will be the bare subsistence level. That's not good for society.
Unions like SEIU have worked hard to get health care and decent pay for workers in many fields who would otherwise be dependent on emergency room care, which is far more expensive to society. Companies have far more "market power" in the labor market than individuals do, due to the way individuals have few choices and companies can always hire someone else.
However, many unions, especially public employee unions, also fall into the unfortunate position of fighting against the firing of bad workers. This is not in the best interest of the labor movement generally, since it undermines political support for organized labor and doesn't actually improve the lot of most workers, But individual unions or workers aren't focused on that. In at least one recent case, the ATU leadership didn't want to appeal the firing of one WMATA employee whose infractions had made the press and garnered significant scorn, but the rank and file overrode the recommendation.
This is the fundamental disconnect. A union officially represents the workers, just like a lawyer represents a client, and is supposed to do everything they can for the workers. But they also have powers granted by the law, such as to collect dues from all employees, which means they enjoy privileges granted by the government. The government should only give power if it serves the public interest. Sometimes having a union does serve the public interest, but in this case of firing bad people it does not.
Is it possible to make firing poorly performing union employees easier without throwing out the whole organized labor system? The new Republican majority in the House would surely be interested in curbing some union excesses, while there are plenty of ways the law still doesn't protect employees trying to organize against retaliation. Could a deal be worked out where layoffs for performance become possible but organizing also becomes more possible?
How could such a layoff work? Off the top of my head, here are some ideas which people surely poke holes in. An agency head could create some ranking, which could include objective criteria (like IMPACT's) and some subjective criteria (like manager ratings), and announce their intention to lay off a specific number of people by taking the bottom of that ranking. However, they also have to identify an equal number from the second lowest group. In other words, if they want to lay off 10% of people by performance, they have to identify the bottom 10% and also the next lowest 10%.
The union can then challenge any of the choices, but they have to also identify which people from the second group they would remove instead, based on any other alternative but not completely arbitrary rating system. The agency can agree, or can go to arbitration to decide which.
For teachers, for example, if WTU thought IMPACT was lousy and it could come up with a better system, it could use that system to replace some of the teachers rated worst by IMPACT with some of the teachers rated not quite so bad but still not tops. Keeping everyone isn't an option, and choosing based on whim isn't either, but there's room to negotiate the criteria.
Or, perhaps there are other ways to fix this problem. Any ideas? Let's try to keep the comments from devolving into a shouting match of "Destroy all unions!" "No, keep all unions exactly the same!" Something is broken, but let's figure out how to fix that one thing instead of pushing for unrealistic and wholesale changes.
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