The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, representing DASH bus drivers, reached a tentative agreement with DASH management on Saturday, May 18, boosting drivers’ wages and benefits and avoiding a strike.
The agreement, which DASH drivers have yet to ratify, would make DASH wages and benefits comparable to Metro’s. It’d also avoids a strike, which the union said it would undertake in conjunction with the summer shutdown of Alexandria’s Metrorail stations, beginning this week. DASH’s routes will serve as a transit alternative for thousands of displaced Metro commuters.
Chris Townsend, a union organizer, expects members will approve the deal when they vote on it this Wednesday, as the Gazette Packet goes to press. The union’s bargaining committee, which includes several drivers, unanimously recommended ratification.
Fighting for a pay bump and improved benefits, drivers began collective bargaining earlier this year, after a vote to unionize in November.
Starting and top pay at DASH are among the lowest among regional bus services. It also takes 20 years to reach top pay at DASH, compared to seven at Metrobus. Two-thirds of DASH drivers have to work overtime or a second job to make ends meet, according to the union’s John Ertl.
To match Metrobus, the new agreement would raise starting hourly pay at DASH from $17 to $21.32 and top pay from $29 to $32.80, effective Sunday, May 26, according to the union. Drivers would also get a half-percent pay rate bump each year for the next three years. DASH drivers would now be able to reach top pay in seven years.
“The wage parity was the huge part of us wanting to be in the union. Being a driver, you have lives at stake both inside and outside the bus. They [Metro] get paid well enough and we should get paid too. This DMV [District of Columbia, Maryland, Northern Virginia] area is very expensive to live in. How come I can work in this city but I can’t afford to live in the city?” said former DASH employee Latanya Robinson.
Under the new agreement, DASH would automatically contribute eight percent of gross wages to full-time drivers’ 401(k) retirement accounts, which the union says effectively compares to Metro’s pension. DASH’s current defined contribution plan offers employer matching, though the union says low wages make it hard for employees to contribute in the first place.
By year’s end DASH would begin contributing to employee accounts for post-retirement health care coverage. DASH’s annual contribution would start at $150 in 2019 and rise to $500 by 2022. The new arrangement would allow drivers to convert unused sick leave to incremental durations of post-retirement health insurance coverage.
Retirees could also cash in up to 120 hours of unused sick leave.
City Manager Mark Jinks will recommend to council next month how to fund the new contract. Though City Council’s recently adopted FY 2020 budget didn’t include additional funds for this purpose, council can make an amendment of allocation outside the budget process.
The deal would also establish a new employee discipline and grievance process. Currently, employees may request (and help pay for) a “Neutral Party Review,” which yields non-binding recommendations for management’s consideration. The new process would culminate in independent arbitration.
The pending agreement would offer two recently terminated DASH drivers — Robinson and Yonas Aemiro — reinstatement. DASH fired Robinson for failing to follow a dispatcher’s instructions relating to bus parking, among other things, and Aemiro for not returning on time from vacation. Union officials think the firings were retaliatory, since both Robinson and Aemiro served as official observers during the drivers’ November unionization vote. In April, the union filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board to that effect, alleging also that the firings meant “to discourage union activities and/or membership.”
Prior to Saturday's tentative agreement, a neutral party review found Robinson’s termination "was not a 'fair and reasonable' response” to her infractions and recommended “she be reinstated to her position.”
Asked last week to comment on the reviewer’s findings, DASH General Manager Josh Baker said he couldn’t discuss personnel matters. But he added: “The rights of all of our employees has always been, and always will be at the core of our values.”
“We all felt that her [ Robinson’s] firing was a shot at us,” said Tyler Boos, a 3-year DASH employee and union bargaining committee member. “I definitely had a more strained relationship with management. It would appear that some opportunities to maybe advance in the company had dried up. I don’t think they plan on promoting me any time soon.”
“I’m elated about the whole process,” said Robinson. “I’m glad that I got my job back.”
“We had an incredible support network from the [union],” said Boos.
At the same time, the union has cautioned that it still wants to see more systemic changes.
"[DASH] does whatever it wants, almost no oversight by the city,” Townsend told the Alexandria Democratic Committee’s Labor Caucus on Wednesday, May 15. “I truly think that the city needs to put the DASH corporation in trusteeship, fire the general manager, fire his assistant, and really investigate” DASH’s management history.
DASH, though owned and mostly funded by City Council, as well as governed by a council-appointed board, is an independent nonprofit.
“I’m pleased that they were able to reach an agreement that allows us to continue to provide a high level of service to our residents and support our drivers,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. Though asked to comment on council’s responsibility for DASH, neither he nor other council members responded.