Last month, after pledging his support to the striking Chicago Teachers’ Union, Bernie Sanders turned his attention to another ongoing walkout: the Cinder Bed Road garage strike in Northern Virginia. “With a strong union, workers get the basic protections they deserve,” Sanders wrote. “Unions like ATU [Amalgamated Transit Union] are defending workers every day against the expansion of corporate greed within our transit systems. I support @ATULocal689 in its fight for justice.”
While Chicago teachers have since settled their strike, the Cinder Bed Road workers are still out on the picket line. Their action has broader significance, not only as part of the uptick in strike activity across the country, but also as part of a regional upsurge in labor militancy among transit workers fighting privatization and outsourcing.
The Cinder Bed Road garage strike is the first at the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) since 1978. Employees at the facility work in the first privatized bus garage in the metro DC area. The company, French outsourcing contractor Transdev, is known for a business model that relies on crushing labor to reduce costs in public transit systems. The company notoriously used scab labor in 2016 to attempt to break a twelve-day strike on the Luas, the light rail service in Dublin, Ireland, which it privately operates.
In the Washington, DC area, workers at Cinder Bed drive the same routes, on the same buses, on the same roads as other bus operators working directly for WMATA. But they are paid $12 an hour less, and their health care plan includes a $6,000 deductible (there is no deductible for WMATA-employed operators). The union has also pointed to safety concerns and unfair labor practices as reasons for the walkout.
When workers at privatized facilities strike, they are not just fighting for themselves — they are also fighting the privatization and outsourcing that is crippling public services and pushing down wages across industries. If the Transdev workers win, WMATA administrators will be put on notice that they can no longer outsource low pay, unfair practices, and poor services to the private sector without workers fighting back.
Transdev has responded to the strike exactly how a company brought in to bust unions should be expected to act — they have stripped workers of their health insurance for the duration of the strike. (The union noted that “employer-based healthcare puts the power of life and death in the hands of the boss, to be used as a weapon by the company. Medicare for All would be a victory for worker rights and human decency.”) And they have used weak labor laws and immigrants’ fears of deportation to threaten probationary workers with dismissal if they do not scab.
Still, strikers have remained united so far, and members of Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America who have leafleted outside Metro stations report widespread support for the strike among those already aware of it — the egregious disparities in wages and benefits between workers doing the same job are difficult for either Transdev or WMATA to justify.
Of course, there is a private justification. WMATA management does not want Transdev to raise its wages because it would prefer to either privatize more garages or lower its own wages, conditions, and safety standards to match Transdev’s. This is why WMATA continues to pay Transdev for the contract during the strike even though the routes are not running — and why the union has held mass rallies outside its headquarters. Politicians like democratic-socialist city council candidate Janeese Lewis George are urging WMATA to force Transdev to the table.
The strike comes amid an atmosphere of militancy in the metro DC area transit infrastructure. Operators of the Potomac and Rappahannock Transit Commission’s Omniride service, managed by contractor First Transit, staged a work stoppage this summer. Bus operators for Alexandria’s DASH service unionized and won a first contract with major victories after securing a unanimous strike vote and threatening to shut down the service during summer Metro closures.
The Cinder Bed strike has also begun to spread to other Transdev-operated services, including the Fairfax Connector, whose six hundred workers voted overwhelmingly over the weekend to walk out — the sixth successful strike vote at a metro DC transit company since May. If the dispute is not resolved, ninety-one bus routes in northern Virginia could shut down, disrupting some of America’s wealthiest suburbs and most powerful businesses and making the strike financially and politically difficult for WMATA to ignore.
The stakes are high: if the Cinder Bed strike fails, WMATA management will have a greater incentive to spread the low-wage model to other parts of the transit service, contracting out more and more jobs to companies like Transdev that slash wages and cut corners to boost profits while using labor and safety practices that are prohibited by union contracts in the public sector. These practices perform well on cost-benefit analyses used by technocratic administrators: providing public services on the cheap may hurt workers, but it reduces the amount of taxes required to operate them.
Worse conditions and lower pay lead to poorer service and, often, reduced ridership, further decimating public transit at a time when it desperately needs to be expanded and improved. Union busting and privatization in Pennsylvania’s SEPTA system produced a catastrophic collapse in ridership that continues to hurt the public through increased traffic, pollution, and carbon emissions.
This philosophy of “new public management” sees trimming costs for taxpayers as the paramount objective in running public services. Privatization is therefore preferred because it places costs onto workers and the environment. But of course, when applied across a society, lower wages mean lower purchasing power for working-class people and cutting corners leads to hazards and disasters that cost working-class lives as well as public faith in services like public transit. Ultimately, Transdev and WMATA’s practices amount to class war against their workers and transit riders.
The solution, from a working-class perspective, is simple: we should struggle against privatization. In privatized companies, workers and their unions should organize and fight back against disparities between their wages, conditions, and staffing levels and those in the public sector; and where organization and militancy eventually leads to strikes socialists and trade unionists elsewhere should help out wherever possible, including donating to strike funds and providing support at picket lines.
The privatization and outsourcing model is common across huge swaths of the public sector. Strikes can provide an opportunity for popular political education about the need to renationalize and remunicipalize public services that have been outsourced; to properly fund public services; and to democratize public services and ensure that their workers and working-class service users are put in control rather than private contractors, investors, and pro-business politicians. Strikes also dramatize the need for labor to embrace reforms like Medicare for All — which, as Local 689 noted, would remove employers’ ability to weaponize the power of life and death against workers.
Workers at privatized companies can win these fights. Transdev’s workers at the Luas in Dublin beat back attempts to break their 2016 strike and won pay increases of up to 18 percent, contributing to an almost doubling of the company’s annual pretax losses on the contract. Organized workers can boost their wages, strengthen their benefits, and improve working conditions, all while making privatization more costly and difficult and strengthening the movement for democratic ownership of public services. Cinder Bed garage and Fairfax Connector ATU workers are fighting for themselves — but they are fighting for us as well.