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In-depth look at the Virginia transit worker strike

By Chris Townsend |
January 16, 2023
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Alexandria, VA - Transit workers employed by the French multinational rail and transit company Keolis took strike action on January 1, in Loudoun County, Virginia. The ATU Local 689 members had no choice but to take this drastic action in view of company stonewalling at the negotiations table, and in view of the shameful labor relations practices of Keolis. Like many union fights, there are many details and episodes that go unrecorded and unreported (although Labor Notes has a recent article on this struggle). What follows are a few of those background details that will add to our knowledge and improve our ability to continue – and hopefully expand - the work we do to organize the unorganized. 

I first drove out to Loudoun County in early 2016 to help organize the transit workers, who had just been unceremoniously abandoned by their former “union.” This outfit walked off after four attempts over two years to get the workers to ratify a contract containing a 25-cents per year increases. Not surprisingly, almost none of the workers by that time still belonged to that absentee and moribund “union.” They were abandoned without notice by that union and cut loose to suffer their fate.

As organizing director for the ATU International union, I had received phone calls from several workers who at that time were employed by the Transdev, the previous French-owned transit firm in Loudoun County. These workers had been ATU members previously at other transit companies and wanted to join up again. I went out to meet them the next day and ran a union meeting in the bus garage until Transdev management had the police evict me from the county-owned building. Workers were on a multi-hour mid-day split break. 

Disgusted with the heavy-handed police action, about 40 workers followed me outside where I continued the meeting standing on the back of my pickup truck in the street. Workers were fired up at the thought of joining ATU and union card signing for an NLRB election with ATU started on the spot. The enthusiasm was not contagious, however, and the following morning at my office in the ATU headquarters a long-overdue-to-retire-and-never-should-have-been-hired international representative of the union counseled me that, “There’s nothing you can do. If they didn’t join the other union, they won’t join ATU. It’ll be a lot of work.” I promptly disregarded this “advice,” but it sadly expressed the lethargic and defeatist views of many in the ATU leadership - then and now. That staff member was needed in the drive, but as was the case with most other campaigns, I cobbled together what staff I could to do the work - without him.

Our campaign was off and running from the street meeting. But, as is one of the preferred anti-union devices of Transdev, the next day the company set up a fake “Driver Council” with hand-picked pro-company bootlickers as leaders. This offer of a freebie “union” of sorts split the group badly and had the desired effect of creating dissent among the workers. Our organizing stalled immediately. In the interim I played the role of morale officer with the ATU stalwarts, talking to them every week and making numerous trips out to meet with them. I assigned a staff organizer to the property, and we confidently told the workers that once the company believed the danger of ATU had passed that all company improvements would evaporate. 

It took six or seven months, but the ATU campaign was renewed. As is the case with all fake “company unions,” people increasingly saw the fraudulent nature of the scheme and chose a real union - ATU. The many promises came to nothing and the company stooges fronting the scheme exposed themselves as tools and spies for the personnel department.

After an all-out fight with Transdev – one of the most anti-union firms of all the private contract companies that ATU deals with – the group was finally organized in early September 2017 by a 62 to 5 landslide margin in an NLRB election. After another tough fight, a good first contract was reached and ratified overwhelmingly. Shop leader Sandra Vigil, one of the key early leaders and a solid supporter through all the ups and downs, explains in the Labor Notes article the benefits of the first contract that the union had worked so hard to win.

As is the custom in the musical chairs of transit contracting, Transdev was eventually outbid and removed. Keolis is the company now employed by Loudoun County to provide transit, commuter and paratransit service to the people of this fast-growing and wealthy suburb of Washington, DC. The county agreed to hire Keolis in 2021 despite their miserable record of performance and labor relations; no due diligence of any consequence was performed by the county administration. The ATU confidently predicted this entire eventual debacle, but as is the case in Loudoun County, the transit agency management staff are reflexively anti-union and constantly in cahoots with the companies they supposedly oversee. 

The otherwise liberal Democrats who control the county are sympathetic, but otherwise paralyzed in their own bureaucratic cul-de-sac. Rather than decisively drop the hammer on the company for their outrageous conduct, the politicians are inclined to mediate and coax rather than govern. The company and the transit agency management are well aware of the contracting racket, and constantly conspire against the workers and the political leadership that - at least on paper - are supposed to be in charge. 

For more than a year after winning the Loudoun transit contract, Keolis worked feverishly to destroy ATU, forcing another NLRB election and committing a mountain of NLRB Unfair Labor Practice violations with their illegal conduct. Finally, after many months, the union members were able to win their union a second time in an NLRB election in March of 2022, by another landslide margin of 71 to 2. 

In recent years the unit has also grown from the original 70 to more than 130 workers, more than double the size of the original group that joined ATU. Despite every company maneuver to destroy the union – first by Transdev and now Keolis – the workers have succeeded and triumphed. Bargaining for a union contract began shortly after the second NLRB election win. But little bargaining took place. 

The current strike is yet again another attempt by the outlaw Keolis company to destroy the union, and it will fail as all of the previous schemes have failed. Underlining the Keolis strike is also the amazing fact that over the past eight years, ATU has managed to win and organize 45 new transit units in the greater Washington, DC region. More than 3500 transit workers have been added to ATU’s ranks, taking the total working membership of ATU well past 15,000 in the region. It is a feat unmatched in the country to see such a concentration and perseverance of a union’s organizing efforts focused on its core jurisdiction in a given region. 

ATU Local 689 has now grown into somewhat of a North Star for transit workers in the region, bargaining ever-better contracts and ensuring that the organizing wave with the unorganized transit workers in the region will continue. 

The workers will prevail in the current battle, just three years ago ATU won a landmark rollback of privatization and a great contract settlement after almost three months of striking only 40 miles away in Lorton, Virginia. Once again, the Transdev menace was defeated and the interests of the transit workers in the region were advanced. 

The workers on these transit properties, the international union organizers, the local union leaders and members all deserve recognition for these events. They are an example for the ATU as well as the labor movement generally. It has been proven that substantial union organizing, bargaining – and, if needed, strike action - can succeed in Virginia. Further, the ATU has proven that when persistence is shown, huge numbers of unorganized transit workers can be organized and brought into the union. 

Stay tuned for updates on the strike at Labor Notes and at the ATU web site at Amalgamated Transit Union (atu.org) 

Chris Townsend was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union organizing director. Previously he was an international representative and political action director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW.

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