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Virginia Transit Strikers Fight Privatized Race to the Bottom.

Around 130 workers who operate, fix, and dispatch buses in Loudoun County, Virginia, went on strike Wednesday morning.

They’re up against Keolis, a French multinational and one of the largest private operators of public transit systems in the U.S. The company has challenged the union’s right to strike, its right to a contract, and even its existence.

The Loudoun County workers join a movement of bus operators, mechanics, dispatchers, and call center operators striking around greater Washington, D.C. It’s the eighth transit job action in the region in just over three years. Hundreds of strikers have faced down major private contractors—not only Keolis but also Transdev, MV Transportation, and RATP Dev.

For Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, these fights are not just over bad behavior from this or that private operator, they’re about whether buses should be a public service or a source of private profit.

In 2019, 120 workers at the Cinder Bed Road garage in Virginia struck against Transdev for 84 days, in the first strike at a Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority bus garage in four decades. They penned an iconic strike anthem and pushed WMATA to bring its operations back in-house—a rare de-privatization win.

STRATEGIC UNDERBID

At the heart of this strike are low wages. Loudoun County is one of the most expensive places in the country. Keolis took over the contract to operate Loudoun County Transit bus service in 2021 from another multinational operator, Transdev. In that deal, the County also merged its paratransit operation into a single contract with Keolis. Paratransit serves passengers who can’t use fixed-route buses due to mobility issues.

The transit side of the operation had organized with ATU in 2017 in a 93 percent vote, and had ratified its first contract in early 2018. But the paratransit workers were non-union. And despite a successorship clause in the Transdev contract, Keolis convinced the National Labor Relations Board to hold a new election for the combined unit.

To the union, this was all part of a bigger plan. According to a statement from Local 689 President Raymond Jackson, “Keolis underbid this contract and thought they were going to profit off of underpaying these workers forever.”

The company was counting on undoing the gains that workers had so recently won—and if possible, doing away with the union altogether.

WON THEIR UNION…TWICE

Sandra Vigil has been a bus operator at Loudoun County Transit since 2015. In fact, Vigil was one of the workers who first reached out to the ATU about organizing.

She recalls the difference that first contract made: “Wages went from $15 to $19 per hour, and top pay went up to $31 per hour within four years. We had a 38-hour guarantee. Health insurance was pretty good—not the best, but people could get the care they needed. Our 401k had a 6 percent match. People were happy with the contract.”

The first contract was set to expire at the end of 2021. But by February of that year, things were already going downhill.

https://labornotes.org/2023/01/virginia-transit-strikers-fight-privatized-race-bottom

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