Preparing for Fight DC Transit Workers Disrupt Board Meeting
Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 6:38PM
Challenge_DesafĂ­o

WASHINGTON, DC, May 17—As the deadline to sign a new contract loomed on April 27, members of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) largest union rallied outside a meeting of the agency’s board to protest management’s failure to bargain in good faith and its aggressive attacks on worker rights.With an initial force of 200 picketers that swelled to 500 before the rally ended, Local 689 members, and two other unions that lent their support, chanted demands for respect and fair treatment while joining hands and surrounding the block-long building. Bold chants of “Whats do we want, respect!  When do we want it, now! If we don’t get it we’ll shut this system down” rang out.
WMATA wants to revoke numerous worker gains made in past bargaining agreements, freeze wages, and reduce medical benefits: all in the name of cost savings, most likely at the behest of company’s financial advisor and the man who brought Detroit to its knees as its emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.
The most outrageous WMATA proposal is to abolish the defined benefit retirement plan. This plan has been in existence since 1945, when the union struck against the private transit company that predated WMATA, Capital Transit, and forced the bosses to establish it. WMATA wants to place all new employees in a 401(k), which will drain and ultimately bankrupt the existing pension fund because there would be a steady decline of contributions to the defined benefit plan as older workers retire. This risky scheme could leave workers with nothing to live on in retirement and potentially rob them of the hard-earned money they put in: Investing giant Vanguard has reported declines in 401(k) market returns as well as the average value of 401(k) holdings.
The prospect of workers facing financial disaster in old age are high. Compounding the ordinary risk of market investment is the likelihood of a secondary recession that has followed every major recession in America (like the Great Recession of 2007-09), and which we can expect to experience. That means Local 689’s pension fund may soon be in real trouble. The implementation of this proposal spells disaster for current and future retirees, and, possibly, the survival of the union.
Already, new hires of Local 689 members will not receive medical benefits in retirement. According to a 2015 Fidelity Investment report, “. . . a couple, both aged 65 and retiring this year, can now expect to spend an estimated $240,000 on health care throughout retirement,” an 11 percent increase over the previous year and up 29 percent from 2005. This increase in medical costs far outpaces annual cost of living expenses, for which Local 689 retirees receive increases when active members do. Because health benefits are such an expense to WMATA, management is now pushing to increase worker premium contributions. The effects of such a blow from this major unionized company will echo throughout transit systems and many other unionized companies in the Mid-Atlantic region, and possibly throughout the nation. Active members may respond by using their medical benefits less often, which could lead to more than usual health adversities they may face upon retirement. Add to this the already existing health plan exemptions, and we may be leading into a national health crisis.
These draconian cost saving strategies have been designed by the US’s most well-known financial advisors, Kevyn Duane Orr, part-time “strategic executive adviser” to WMATA. WMATA paid a fee of $1.75 million dollars for two years of service to legal juggernaut Jones Day, where Orr heads the Washington DC branch. The details of this contract have yet to be released, so any additional hidden fees or bonuses may not be disclosed in the near future. The media ignores this payout, as well as the $2.9 million that WMATA spent to retain the two consulting firms, McKinsey & Co and Ernst & Young, which were hired to reform WMATA’s management and financial practices. Instead, the media attacks workers as overpaid and incompetent, trying to divide the riding public from the workers.
The proposed cutbacks thus far have been in discrete identifiable expenses that may prove to be short term solutions at best. Management’s number one agenda item has been to curtail labor and benefit costs, yet very little attention has been given to operational issues that reflect management error and incompetence. One Local 689 member lamented with exasperation, “I had a brief correspondence with the Chief Operations Officer [James Leader] detailing the number of managers and possible malfeasance in my department.”  He continued, “I even sent him a letter addressed to Mr. Weidefeld [the General Manager], but he never followed through.”  By ignoring workers’ efforts to improve the safety and functioning of the transit system, WMATA management is endangering the public and undercutting the viability of public transportation in the Washington, D.C. region.
In the words of Zachary M. Shrag, author of The Great Society Subway, “great fires inspire rebuilding.”  The recent series of safety lapses in the transit system due to management incompetence­—some resulting in death and injury—and the barrage of attacks from the General Manager Weidefeld and local politicians may be the accelerant that Local 689 needs to reinvigorate and reaffirm its members and their responsibility to the labor movement. Workers united have the power to change all things that harm their well-being and that of others. That unity will require knowledge that our membership to learn the specific history of Local 689, of the global labor movement, and of the revolutionary political leadership that can defeat the global and local capitalists, and then develop the right fightback strategy. As the anti-Apartheid leader Steve Biko declared, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Armed instead with new revolutionary knowledge, and developing new dedicated selfless leadership, Local 689 will gain the power to  defend their rights and help preserve the liberties of the working class.

Article originally appeared on The Revolutionary Communist Progressive Labor Party (http://www.plp.org/).
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