Fairfax Connector Bus Workers Say They’re Prepared To Strike

Drivers and maintenance workers for the Fairfax Connector say they’re prepared to go on strike against Transdev, the contractor that operates the bus service for Fairfax County. A strike would affect service for an estimated 30,000 riders.

Negotiations between Transdev and the workers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, stalled Thursday morning at 2 a.m. over health care benefits and a management rights provision.

The union and Transdev met again on Thursday afternoon, after union officials and members held a press conference to outline their concerns with the process.

“The union is committed to working as hard and as long as possible to getting a fair deal,” said John Ertl, a senior organizer with Amalgamated Transit Union. “Our members have reached their tipping point, though, and they are ready to strike if necessary.”

WAMU has reached out to Transdev for comment.

Transdev contracts with Fairfax County to run the Connector buses — a 5-year agreement that began last July.

On Thursday, union officials called on the County to “rein in their private contractor.”

“They should bring the service in house, and undo this failed privatization experiment,” Ertl said.

Ertl said county officials, including members of the Board of Supervisors, had been “supportive” of union concerns.

Jeff McKay, the chairman of the board, said in a statement that he is “hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

“Fairfax County is committed to continuing to foster conversations and look at all options moving forward,” McKay’s statement reads. “Though we’re constrained in what and how we can get involved in this private process, we’ve been successful in helping to keep buses on the road, and I am hopeful that will continue.”

Disagreements Over Health Care Coverage 

One sticking point in the contract negotiations between the union and Transdev is health care coverage for workers. According to the union, a third of the 600 workers in the union pay more for healthcare than their peers.

“We have been demanding that all of the workers be treated the same,” said Michael Cornelius, an international representative with Amalgamated Transit Union, and one of the negotiators.

According to Cornelius, the union came up with a means to free up the money in the contract to pay the difference in health care costs. But Transdev, he said, wouldn’t budge, leading talks to begin to break down.

“We asked them to put one thing on the table, one issue that our members could live with, just one, didn’t care what it was,” Cornelius said. “They didn’t give us anything.”

At that point, union officials said, the two sides agreed to a cooling-off period until noon on Thursday.

El El, a bus driver who said he’s worked on the Fairfax Connector service for 16 years, said health care was his and other union members’ top priority in negotiations.

“The most important [thing] for us is the health care — the health care costs a lot of money,” he said. “Anything like dental, vision insurance.”

In general, he told WAMU, drivers want a contract that will ease the high cost of living in Northern Virginia.

“I’m driving 45 minutes to come in from a place that I can afford my rent,” El El said. “I can’t live in this county. It’s too expensive for me.”

‘The Parking Brake Came Off In My Hand’

Union workers also voiced concerns over the maintenance and upkeep of the buses. Some reported being asked to drive buses that had check engine lights on, loose steering wheels or ceilings that leaked in the rain.

El El said he’d had trouble with faulty buses in the past, including bus ceilings that leaked on him in the rain.

“One time I was driving the bus and suddenly the parking brake came off in my hand,” he said. He had to call for another bus to come take his passengers to the closest Metro station.

“We’re going to continually advocate for safe transit,” Ertl said. “We’re not saying that the buses aren’t safe and that people shouldn’t ride them on the basis of safety.”

Union members previously went on strike for four days last December, after contract talks with Transdev stalled. At the time, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, whose members drive Metrobuses out of the Cinder Bed Road facility in Lorton, were also on strike against the company. That strike ended last month after 84 days.

Fairfax County Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) said the possibility of another strike on the Connector called to mind the disruption of the Cinder Bed Road action.

“Speaking for myself, I don’t have a lot of good feelings about Transdev, given the way they handled the Metro strike,” he told WAMU.

Workers said the potential decision to strike was not one they would make lightly. El told WAMU he thought hard about the possible financial impact on his family — and his mortgage.

Ertl said the union regarded a strike as “a last resort.”

“If they come to the table and try to negotiate a deal, we will do the same,” Cornelius said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Supervisor James Walkinshaw and to reflect John Ertl’s affiliation with Amalgamated Transit Union, not Local 1764.

Margaret Barthel is a reporter in the WAMU Newsroom. 

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