Metro’s labor woes in D.C. may not be going away soon

Even as it closes in on summer 2019, the Metrorail strike is a fresh reminder of how unreliable the District’s transit system can be.

Fewer than two weeks after the last strike in 2017, WMATA won an extension to a crucial contract that provided for additional maintenance staff. Under the new contract, transit union and Metro officials agreed to a total of 46 construction or maintenance jobs — seven permanent positions and more than two dozen seasonal or temporary ones.

A number of those permanent and seasonal jobs were cut this year. Since 2015, WMATA has eliminated 33 positions and created three, saying that other staff became available. That’s about half of the 48 positions allocated to the union, but far fewer than the combined 375 positions Metro employees requested to fill vacancies.

The Metro board has set 2020 as the year of non-renewable contract extensions. Talks over new labor agreements for Metrorail service — including whether to add new security officers to the structure — will likely be completed by the end of 2019.

Board members are likely to face a more “muted labor picture” in the years ahead as the TUP deal runs out and the number of permanent employees decreases, said board Chairman Jack Evans.

Officials at Metro and the Metro Transit union are watching the federal investigations into the agency’s financial troubles closely, said Michael Kucharek, an agent representing the Metro Transit union.

The agency is attempting to solve its worsening financial problems by raising fares and scaling back service. The agency’s new five-year plan, released in early December, shows public transportation to be its lowest priority.

At the same time, the federal prosecutors’ office is investigating three of Metro’s top management figures over their handling of Metro’s finances, including how they spent public money. Metro acknowledged in mid-December that it had asked the Justice Department to allow the transit agency to file a formal criminal complaint to support the action against others.

Some of the tension about public transit in D.C. comes from the fact that there are not a lot of opportunities for union members to work their way into management jobs at Metro, as opposed to other private corporations.

“It makes it tough because we’re trying to cover more people for fewer positions,” said Evans, who is also the head of WMATA’s Board of Directors.

WMATA isn’t alone in its struggles to hire more employees, and it isn’t just transit systems.

In April, the Department of Defense called for the hiring of more than 8,000 civilians to help deal with the end of wartime pay increases and extend the life of the military health care system. The agency is currently short more than 4,500 jobs — not including temporary and seasonal positions — and its “hire freeze” has brought out about 2,000 of those positions, a spokesman said.

In early December, another top Pentagon agency pushed Congress to cancel federal pay raises for 2019 because there aren’t enough employees. The U.S. Civil Service Commission has proposed placing certain requirements on all federal agencies to encourage additional staff hiring.

Some of the pressures on transit are unique to D.C.

With an increase in workers in D.C. who have seen a lower wage in the private sector and fewer positions to draw from, fewer labor groups may be willing to join the Teamsters union in 2016. The WMATA strike of 2017 took place against a backdrop of workers’ calls for higher pay, and added pressure to Metro’s labor negotiations.

But WMATA has a pro-labor stance, including the TUP extension agreement, which allows for the hiring of workers not covered by the TUP contract. And the transit system has also added more jobs that come under the TUP.

Metro officials say they are always evaluating their needs and expenses as they work toward a budget.

“Obviously we try to keep (demand) in check, but it is competitive,” said Evans.

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