How a Transit Union Triumphed in an Anti-Union Stronghold
Transit in the Washington, D.C., area is heavily unionized. But until recently there was one stubborn holdout—the DASH bus system in Alexandria, Virginia.
The city debuted DASH 35 years ago to create a cheaper, nonunion alternative to the regional MetroBus service. It was set up as a nonprofit corporation owned by the city so that it would technically be privately run, disqualifying workers from receiving the city pension.
Over and over since then, drivers at DASH reached out to Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 to organize. They wanted what union members in the region already had—decent wages and benefits.
The union tried to organize repeatedly, but it always ended in failure. Management used every trick in the book to crush union drives.
They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on union-busting consultants. They promised to change. They bought off or rooted out union sympathizers. They did lots of little things to curry favor with particular workers to keep their loyalty.
Despite its low wages, DASH managed to retain immigrant drivers by routinely allowing them to travel home for extended periods in excess of what the handbook allowed. It was enough to keep workers from uniting for a union.
Whenever the latest organizing drive receded, it was back to business as usual. “There was no respect for the drivers,” said veteran driver Charles Barrett. “When a customer complaint came in, they’d always side with them, but they’d never give us a compliment.”
“There ain’t no bars on the windows. You can always leave,” is what the ham-fisted operations manager would say whenever someone brought up a problem.
And people did leave. DASH was a place where “people take a job to get a commercial driver’s license so that they can go get another job someplace else,” said driver Tyler Boos. The company struggled to maintain an adequate workforce amid a nationwide commercial driver shortage.
Meanwhile, a generation of DASH drivers saw Alexandria transform from a backwater into a posh hub of development. These days the city is peppered with lawn signs advertising “condos from the upper $1 millions!”
The transformation culminated in the recent announcement that Amazon’s new second headquarters would be built in Northern Virginia in the DASH service area—courtesy of millions of dollars of corporate welfare extracted from government coffers.
Yet none of this newfound prosperity trickled down to the bus operators. In one of the most expensive places in the country for housing, they were making do on a starting salary of $35,000.
Wages at DASH were the lowest in the region. Each year of the wage progression was $3 to $10 less per hour than at unionized facilities. And it took 20 years to reach top pay, so the majority of workers were making less than $20 per hour.
Alexandria’s city workforce includes more than 250 salaried officials who make over $100,000 a year. The DASH bus operators were always left behind.
SEEDS OF REBELLION
The last straw came when, five years into a wage freeze, management withheld the end-of-year bonus that drivers had always counted on. Workers again contacted ATU Local 689.
Organizers quickly signed up the drivers on union authorization cards and built an organizing committee that could reach all pockets of the workforce.
Early in the drive, organizers sought to make contact with every worker and kept detailed notes on their observations. This allowed the union to figure out who would make the best leaders in each social group and build an organizing committee that was representative of the entire workforce and all its key demographics.
Critically, the committee included strong immigrant leaders. In past campaigns, the union had struggled to win broad support among Ethiopian immigrant workers, an important group.
The company caught wind of the drive and hired a union-busting consultant called the American Labor Group. Workers were press-ganged into captive-audience meetings and subjected to a barrage of propaganda.
Management claimed there was no money for raises or the year-end bonus. But somehow it had no problem paying thousands in overtime to keep buses on the road while drivers attended mandatory anti-union meetings.
Union-busters even boarded the bus, sitting right behind the driver to continue the anti-union barrage while the driver was meant to be focusing on safety.
This was normally the point at which past union campaigns had been destroyed. The difference this time was that the rock-solid organizing committee was able to hold the workers together. Leaders reminded their co-workers how time and time again management had opportunities to fix things but never did.
When the company tried to stall the election by filing a frivolous objection, the union took the opportunity to go on the offensive. Organizing committee members attended the Labor Board hearing and confronted the union-buster face to face.
“It was do or die at that point,” said driver Luis Morales. “We had put everything on the line. We knew that if we didn’t win, we’d all be fired.”
The daily deluge of union-busting was taking its toll, however. In particular, organizers worried that DASH would succeed with its go-to strategy of exploiting ethnic divisions.
Racing against the clock, the union looked for allies who could help. President Virginia Diamond of the Northern Virginia Labor Council set up meetings with the members of the city council; they were all Democrats. The union confronted them: why were taxpayer dollars being spent to hire a union-buster to squash the rights of city servants?
After an all-out press by the union, the Democrats actually delivered and forced DASH to fire the union-buster. Union organizers crashed the garage with supportive councilmembers and other community leaders to make sure there was no trace of anti-union literature left, and to confirm with workers that the onslaught had stopped.
“The effects of removing the union-buster were huge,” said Boos. “There was a big feeling of relief. After that, everybody seemed to feel like this had solidified into something real. It was great for morale and built everything up because people saw the first real tangible results.”
The week of the union election, dozens of drivers and supporters packed the DASH board of directors meeting. The labor caucus of the local Democratic Party chapter and even a member of Congress wrote letters denouncing the city-sponsored union-busting, and the union distributed them to everyone at the meeting.
Freed from the union-buster’s coercive influence, the workers won their union election 97 to 13.
But workers weren’t out of the woods yet. Stung and embarrassed, the company lashed out.
Check out part two of this story to find out how DASH drivers defended their co-workers against retaliation and won a first contract.
John Ertl is a field mobilization specialist for the Amalgamated Transit Union.