House reps consider adjusting Metro charter, union contract

Media Credit: Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer

Congressional representatives are trying to update the Metro by reviewing the system's 50-year-old charter.

Congressional representatives are trying to fix the Metro system by reexamining the organization’s 50-year-old charter and proposing significant changes to how the system is run, including its current agreement with the union.

Earlier this month, Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and John Delaney, D-Md., told The Washington Post they are each working on separate pieces of legislation to adjust Metro’s charter. Some of the adjustments could include eliminating elected officials from the board, decreasing the union’s power in decision-making and providing reliable funding, The Post reported earlier this month.

Both representatives plan to approach these issues in different ways – Comstock wants to restructure the department’s operations before finding additional funding, but Delaney aims to increase funding from D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the federal government, according to The Post. Delaney will propose de-politicizing the board by adding technical experts and banning politicians. The drafts of the bills could be ready within a few weeks.

Will McDonald, a spokesman for Delaney, declined to comment because the bill is not fully drafted yet. Arthur Bryant, a press assistant to Comstock, did not return requests for comment.

Comstock told The Post she plans on removing the binding arbitration during disputes between Metro and the largest Metro union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, from the charter to decrease rising labor costs.

With binding arbitration in the current charter, the union cannot strike, and during labor disagreements between the union and the board, a third party, typically a professional mediator, must be contacted to determine the action.

Delaney told The Post he was not sure if he would remove the binding arbitration agreement.

In 2015, smoke filled a Yellow Line train near L’Enfant Plaza and killed one person, injuring several more. The senior mechanic, Seyoum Haile, was fired after investigations found he had falsified inspection reports for a burnt out fan.

In the end, the case went before an arbitration board consisting of advocates for Metro, the union and law school professor and attorney Ezio Borchini, and they decided Haile should instead be suspended, The Post reported.

Patrick Kennedy, the chairman of the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said people are concerned with binding arbitration, as past mediators have found raises and benefits can be achieved through tax increases.

Kennedy said the labor-management relationship needs to be analyzed and added that people believe the Metro’s main union has too much power leading to high costs for labor.

“It’s just a question of how we can restructure the relationship so it’s more productive and so some of the more egregious aspects of labor disputes in the past can be dealt with in a responsible way,” he said.

Kennedy said that while the concept of adding technical experts to the board is good in intent, removing elected officials eliminates a sense of accountability.

“We’ve had transit experts serve on the WMATA board in the past, and it hasn’t inhibited the system from following into a state of disrepair,” he said.

Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Council member who chairs the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, said he suggested changing the charter because it has not been changed in approximately 50 years. He said Comstock and Delaney picked up the project after he testified about it in front of them and the Federal City Council.

Multiple aspects of the charter are being considered, including the number of board members and who those board members should be, Evans said.

“It never hurts to examine in light of the last 40 years of experience that we now have,” he said.

David Stephen, the communications coordinator for the ATU Local 689, said readjusting the WMATA contract with the union is unproductive because the system is designed to ensure the Metro is always running.

The current agreement with the 12,000-member union of Washington D.C. Area Transit workers – according to its website – allows Metro to operate efficiently, so the system does not shut down the city, Stephen said.

“It makes sure that we never have a labor dispute that is so contested that it caused for a fallout within the workforce that could potentially lead to a strike or for some reason the system not to operate by the workers,” he said.

Comstock’s proposed plans would negatively impact the middle class, as it takes away the rights of workers to collectively bargain, Stephen said.

“She doesn’t like it when arbitrators rule in our favor because that means they’re ruling in the favor of a working person,” he said.

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