The union that represents Loudoun’s transit workers is fighting a new county contractor to keep benefits in place.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 has found itself battling with Keolis North America, the winner of a $101 million, five-year contract to run Loudoun’s transit services, combining what used to be two contracts into one to run both commuter and local buses.
And while the workers from the previous contract are not seeing their pay cut, the union says they are seeing some of their benefits eroded and the company is refusing to meet.
Amalgamated Transit Union representative John Ertl said the concerns include higher health insurance premiums, lower health insuance coverage, taking away a week of vacation from some of the most senior employees, downgrading flex time, and perhaps most symbolically removing Labor Day—a day honoring the American labor movement—as a paid holiday.
He said the people who make the buses run in Loudoun only want to hang on to what they already had.
“They initially met with us and proposed accepting the CBA but only if we agreed to steep concessions,” Ertl wrote by email. “We rejected those demands for concessions and they subsequently cut off discussions and decided to not recognize the union at all. I had phone calls with Arturo Ross, their attorney, and the company threatened they would do this if we didn’t accept their proposals for concessions. What they did was illegal and that’s why we filed charges with the NLRB.”
The union has filed a range of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, from alleged retaliation for union activities, to refusing the bargain in good faith, to denying the union access to the facility.
Union members also voted to authorize a strike even before Keolis formally took over on April 1, although there are no immediate plans to go through with it. Ertl said, “we haven’t gotten this kind of treatment anywhere.”
The shop is also dealing with an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Sandra Vigil, a former 15-year school bus driver before joining Loudoun Transit six years ago to drive a commuter bus, said about 10 people are out sick right now—including herself and her family. And she said some of the enhanced cleaning under the previous contractor didn’t pick up again under Keolis until this week.
Vigil said she was part of getting the union into Loudoun’s commuter buses in the first place in 2018, after facing hostile working conditions. All the time, she also had a son in and out of the hospital. But eventually, she said, the workers and union reached a productive working relationship with the contractor.
Things changed when Keolis arrived.
“It’s not about who’s got more power, it has nothing to do with that,” Vigil said. “Like I keep telling them, we’re not asking for the moon and the stars, you know. We’re asking for what’s fair, for good healthcare we can afford. We want to be able to get our hours so we can make money and pay our bills.”
“Some of these people have worked here for 20 years,” Ertl said in a phone call. “It’s just such a terrible way to treat people. I mean, imagine being such a sh—y employer that you antagonize your people until they would vote to authorize a strike before they even start.”
He also warned that replacing Commercial Driver’s License holders who leave will be difficult, with a nationwide shortage of CDL holders.
“No fewer than 20 of our members have jumped ship already, and they left for the Fairfax Connector,” Ertl said. There, he noted, the union has a stronger agreement. “Keolis, they’re dismantling the transit system here as we know it, and we’re losing a lot of longtime, qualified workers.”
“I had to go through a lot of testing, a lot of training, to do what I do,” Vigil said. “My thing is, if we are doing something that requires us to get licensed, something that requires us to have responsibilities out on the road, people’s safety—their lives—in our hands, and you instead of trying to pay what’s fair are taking away, that’s not right.”
Keolis’s proposal to the county, transition plan and agreement with the county all promised a rosier change over.
“Our goal is to offer comparable, or better, plans than those currently in place for employees,” Keolis wrote in their proposal to the county.
“Throughout the recruitment process, Keolis will maintain close communication and coordination with the County, the outgoing contractor, and union representatives,” reads the company’s transition plan.
“[T]he Contractor will utilize a pay scale that provides at least the same starting wage and incremental increases, and to provide, at a minimum, the same benefits as are provided by the current Contractor for all operators, supervisors, dispatchers, cleaners and maintenance personnel,” reads the executed Agreement for Service, signed by KeolisTransit America President and CEO Aline Frantzen on Jan. 29, 2021.
The company also issued and then rescinded an offer letter to at least some hires from the previous contractor that recognized a union collective bargaining agreement. A second offer letter stated “your employment with KTA is ‘at-will’ and is subject to end at any time, with or without cause and with or without advance notice.”
Some of the conflict seems to arise from combining the two contracts—the previous commuter bus contract was unionized, while the local bus contract was not. A letter on behalf of Keolis from attorney Arturo Ross of Miami-based Akerman LLP in response to demands to recognize the union says that the company “is unable to predict exactly what the percentage breakdown of former Transdev and former MV Transportation employees [the two former contractors] will be on Day 1.” It says the company does not recognize the union, but that the company will recognize the union if, after hiring, the majority of employees are union members.
Contacted to comment for this article, Keolis provided a prepared statement attributed to Frantzen, which takes a slightly different tack.
“Because this workforce is blending a non-represented and represented team, the employees must vote to determine if they wish to continue with their Union representation,” it reads. “Keoliswelcomes that process and is supportive of the employees’ final decision after this vote.”
If there is a vote to unionize, the statement promises, “Keoliswill be supportive of the Loudoun County employees if they vote to Unionize and in turn we will in good faith negotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Unionized employees on a variety of matters including the benefits currently in question.”
“Keolissees our workforce as our most valuable asset and we will continue to support all employees while providing safe, clean, and reliable transit service to the Loudoun community we are privileged to serve,” the statement adds.
The six Democratic county supervisors signed onto a letter to Keolis North America President and CEO Clément Michel encouraging Keolis to recognize the collective bargaining agreement which was in place before the company took over, an which doesn’t expire until Dec. 31. The letter also points out that the county government is in the process of writing an ordinance that would allow collective bargaining for public employees.
“We will be monitoring this situation and trust that you will do what it is right to ensure that Loudoun County’s public servants rights as workers are honored and respected,” the letter concludes.
Letters to the company from Del. Kathleen J. Murphy (D-34), Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-86) and Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) also express concern.
“We’re having to pull teeth to just get some of the most basic things done,” Ertl said. “This company just really doesn’t give a damn about its employees, and they’ve made it very clear that they’re going to cut costs at our expense.”