After more than a year of negotiations, King County Metro announced Aug. 16 a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, which represents about 4,000 operators, mechanics and customer information specialists.
The agreement was ratified by members and includes pay increases totaling about 17% over the life of the contract. It also contains two lump-sum retroactive payments of $2,500 each for retention and contract ratification. Part-time operators will now accrue vacation time at the same rate as full-time workers.
One of Metro’s main priorities has been addressing a decline in staffing levels, which took a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, Metro General Manager Michelle Allison said that the agency had more than 200 vacancies for full- and part-time bus drivers and mechanics. As a result, the agency was forced to cut back on service. Per the agreement, the transit agency will now offer $3,000 signing bonuses to new hires.
A Metro operator who wished to remain anonymous told Real Change that the new agreement offered a “historic” economic package to workers, resulting in the highest net take-home pay for any transit agency in the country at the end of the contract.
“So in that regard, even though I think we deserve more, it is quite a feat that we were able to get what we got,” they said. “I think we deserve more; we’ve gone through COVID. We deal with an unusual work environment here because of the situation of Big Pharma not being held accountable.”
According to the operator, a variety of challenges have led to a sort of feedback loop: deteriorating working conditions lead to employees leaving, which makes work even harder for other operators and mechanics, which leads to more workforce attrition.
“I just know that when I started working here, there [were] much better working conditions. And so there’s so many different cumulative factors that have lessened those working conditions.”
Some of these factors mentioned by the operator include: cuts to downtime between routes, fewer breaks, increasingly difficult schedules as service shifts more to evenings and weekends, frustration from riders over delays and cancellations which further stress out bus drivers, lack of childcare support, lack of regular training, lack of support for women seeking a career in the trades and rising safety concerns over public drug use.
The operator said that it was a difficult situation since workers deserve a safe workplace just as much as the most marginalized people who deal with issues like substance use disorders deserve help.
“The public have a right to safe transport as well as the employee has a right to [a] safe work environment,” they said. “So how do we find that without targeting the most marginalized folks?”
While the new contract makes significant salary gains, the operator said that it weakens other protections and working conditions. In particular, Metro drivers will no longer be given three opportunities to pick a new route each year and will instead have just two options. This means an operator will not be able to change routes as frequently, an issue of high concern to many rank-and-file members.
According to a spokesperson from King County Metro, the agency will now be allowed, through October 2025, to outsource some rail maintenance work to private mechanics when there aren’t enough in-house Metro mechanics to work the vehicles.
King County has not yet released the full terms of the contract. The contract awaits final ratification by the King County Council.
The operator said that they wanted the public to know more about the conditions at King County Metro and how that has led to worker burnout and a decline in service.
“I don’t think the public realizes the working conditions of the operator. They just get frustrated, because the route is late or it’s canceled, and they don't understand why,” they said. “I think that having an empathetic understanding that it’s not just, you know, ungrateful employees — it’s stress.”
Read more of the Aug. 23-29, 2023 issue.