- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2018

A regional transit workers strike was put on hold Monday, the eve of Washington’s first Major League Baseball All-Star Game in decades, as Metro’s management and union officials called for more talks to resolve their long-standing differences.

“Our union is prepared to sit down and have a genuine conversation about the issues that got us to this point,” David Stephen, a spokesman for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents about 8,000 of Metro’s 12,500 employees, said Monday in a written statement.

About 6,000 union members voted Sunday to authorize leaders to call a strike. Mr. Stephen said Monday that “it is not our intention to disrupt the MLB All-Star Game,” which is set for Tuesday at Nationals Park.

But Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans told The Associated Press that “the timing is definitely not a coincidence.”

The Metro board released a rare public statement Monday expressing concern for riders and reiterating its promises to cut costs in exchange for long-sought dedicated funding from the jurisdictions it serves.

“We must find solutions together by continuing to talk and listen, as Chairman Evans recently did in a meeting with union leadership,” the statement read. “The collective bargaining process is the appropriate and legal path to finding solutions.”

Thousands of baseball fans from across the country are expected to attend the All-Star Game, a key feature of the MLB season and the first to be hosted by the District since 1969. A strike could hamstring transportation options for Metro riders and embarrass city leaders eager to make an impression on the national stage.

The uncertainty about the strike leaves in limbo Metro commuters such as Jamal Jones, 36, who said he supports the union.

Mr. Jones said he had witnessed “shoddy management” by Metro for years, but “If in fact their employees decide to strike, and when they decide to strike, it will in essence hold the city hostage.”

Bill Koziol, who came from Chicago to see the game, said Monday that he chose his hotel specifically for its access to Metro.

“I’ve got to come to the game because that’s what I came here for,” Mr. Koziol said. “So I’m going to get here no matter what, whether I take Uber, Metro or walk.”

Linda Foster, whose family is visiting the area for the summer, said they were “extremely frustrated” that the strike might derail their vacation plans.

“We spent a lot of money on the week passes … Wednesday to Wednesday. We’re going to use the Metro for everything,” Ms. Foster said Monday.

The union and Metro’s management have been locked in contract negotiations over wages, job outsourcing and seniority perks for the past two years.

The two parties have been waiting for binding arbitration since last fall, but in the meantime Metro has moved forward on plans to shut down several stations this summer for 45 days to make extensive platform repairs.

Tensions over service hours and pay heightened last week as Metro workers protested by showing up late to work twice and union officials began threatening a strike.

After Sunday’s vote, the union said it “has no plans to make their timeline of events public,” effectively forcing Metro to face a surprise shutdown if negotiations do not resume.

However, a strike is illegal under the 1969 compact that authorizes the regional transit system and lays out negotiation and arbitration procedures for labor disputes.

According to the compact, “each such contract entered into after the effective date of this act shall prohibit the contracting employees from engaging in any strike or an employer from engaging in any lockout.”

Union officials did not respond to phone calls and emails asking why leadership had chosen to strike or what legal remedies had been tried first.

Metro signaled earlier Monday that it would accept talks with the union.

In its public statement, the transit authority said its $500 million in dedicated funding came with promises to Virginia, Maryland and the District to dedicate more funds to capital repairs and cost-cutting. But it also acknowledged that its “financial structure is not sustainable” and retiring workers face “$2.8 billion in unfunded pension and health benefits.”

“The Authority does not want customers to suffer from additional service interruptions,” the statement read. “Dialogue is ongoing between Management and Union officials to identify common ground on these matters, while keeping Metro safe, reliable and affordable for the region.”

The union called the statement “as tone deaf as it is willfully ignorant” and said it was instrumental in securing the dedicated funding. It also accused Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who has shaken up the troubled transit agency with cuts in jobs and service hours, of ignoring “the collective bargaining agreement” between Metro and the union.

If workers do strike, riders and baseball fans won’t be the only ones affected. The District’s food industry relies heavily on federal workers, who rely on public transit. If employees don’t commute, then city restaurants and food trucks could take a hit.

“A lot of government workers don’t drive, especially here because it’s hard to park. I can say it will affect me if they strike,” said Greg Mangrum, 64, who runs the King of Lucky Kabob food truck next to the Waterfront Metro station in Southwest.

“Lots of customers come outside Metro and walk by us,” said Matt Roshan, 38, who runs a Halal food truck next to Mr. Mangrum’s. “If I am here and they close Metro, it will affect my business.”

About 40 percent of Metro’s ridership is government workers, according to the agency’s statistics.

The last time Metro employees walked off the job en masse was in 1978, when bus drivers and mechanics conducted a “wildcat” strike — a protest unauthorized by the union — after Metro leadership tried to negotiate cost-of-living increases. The strike shut down operations for almost five days.

“We look forward to reporting back to our membership tomorrow afternoon what progress, if any, was made during the meeting,” Mr. Stephen said Monday night.

⦁ Adam Sabes and Julian Gregorio contributed to this report.

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