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Striking Fairfax Connector workers demand better benefits and support from contractor

Updated at 3:55 p.m. — Fairfax Connector service will stay suspended at least through this weekend (Feb. 24-25) as drivers and mechanics continue their strike, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation has announced.

FCDOT says it “expects negotiations to continue in good faith with the goal of completing a new contract very soon.”

Earlier: Stagnant wages. Eleven-hour work days with barely enough break time for a meal. Just seven days of sick leave, even after a pandemic that research suggests sickened and killed transit workers nationwide at an elevated rate.

Those are some of the challenges Fairfax Connector workers report facing under Transdev, the private company that Fairfax County hired in 2019 to operate its public bus system. In a bid for improved working conditions, more than 600 bus drivers and mechanics are now on their second day of a strike called yesterday (Thursday) by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689.

“You have to make a choice. When is enough, enough? When do you stand up and fight back? It was time to stand up and fight back,” Sharon Forsyth said while picketing outside the West Ox Road Bus Facility where she works as a Fairfax Connector driver. “What the outcome would be, who knows? But at least my voice was heard…Treat us right. Fair contract, fair wages, sick leave. Give us something more than a slice of pizza and a handshake after 35 years of service.”

A relative newcomer who joined the Connector just over a year ago, Forsyth has worked in transportation for 37 years — including a previous stint with Transdev. The starting salary for drivers is nearly the same as it was 20 years ago, which is “unacceptable,” she says.

“You can’t afford the housing in this region. You can barely afford food in this region,” said Forsyth, who commutes from Prince William County. “So, that is the purpose of this. Nobody wants to be here, but we’re all here, you know? If you don’t take care of the people that run your business, you’ll soon be what? Out of business.”

Forsyth was one of about 128 people who showed up yesterday to march, chant and display signs at the West Ox facility (4970 Alliance Drive), which employs about 163 Connector workers, according to ATU Local 689 organizer Troy Barnes. Workers began convening around 2 a.m., rotating in three shifts.

Across all three Connector garages, including ones in Herndon (268 Spring Street) and Lorton (8101 Cinder Bed Road), about 97% of the workers represented by the union were expected to join a picket line, Barnes told FFXnow.

Authorized by members on Dec. 29, the strike call came after Local 689 and Transdev spent 12 bargaining sessions between October and last Friday, Feb. 16 trying to hammer out a new labor contract that will determine pay, benefits and working conditions, according to the union. Before the strike, workers were operating under a four-year contract that was negotiated after a four-day strike in December 2019 and expired on Nov. 30, 2023.

Fairfax Connector service will remain suspended until the strike is resolved, leaving around 26,000 daily bus riders in limbo, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation has said.

As reported yesterday, Transdev called the union’s work stoppage disappointing in a statement that detailed some of its contract proposals, including a 19.5% wage increase over three years, coverage for 90% of health care expenses and 50% of dental and vision expenses, and yearly performance bonuses of up to $5,300.

However, Barnes says the contractor’s offers for sick leave, retirement benefits and guaranteed work hours remain inadequate.

Right now, a retirement plan is “the biggest sticking point,” with Local 689 pushing Transdev to contribute 6% of wages to a 401(k) with no employee match and the company proposing to match 100% of employee contributions up to 4%, plus an additional 50% for contributions between 4-8%.

The union is also asking for guaranteed 40-hour work weeks — Transdev has offered that as a minimum, but Barnes says those hours would be spread over six days, giving workers just one day off — and 12 days of sick leave for all workers. Transdev has offered to increase paid holidays to 11 days and “an average of two additional sick days across all seniority levels.”

According to Barnes, no additional sick days were offered for workers who contracted COVID-19, even when federal health officials recommended at least 10 days of isolation.

“Those folks that die, there’s no retirement for their family members, and we even…had to get the membership here to help us collect money to be able to bury some of the members that died,” he said.

Marcella Johnson, who has been driving Fairfax Connector buses since 2013, says making it through the pandemic felt like “a miracle.” Operations never stopped, though service was reduced early on, and she didn’t take a single day off.

While she credits Transdev for paying drivers at full-time rates despite the reduced hours, she says few other incentives or protections were offered beyond masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. The union “had to fight hard” to get security doors that shield drivers from passengers, and those were “lousy” compared to ones she saw on other bus systems, Johnson told FFXnow.

Even outside the pandemic, Johnson says her job is “very hectic” with sometimes unruly passengers and sporadic breaks of five to 20 minutes during nine to 11-hour shifts. Unlike Forsyth, she lives in Fairfax County, less than a mile away from the West Ox garage, but it takes two paychecks to cover her rent.

Despite those challenges, Johnson says she “loves” working with Fairfax Connector and has never considered jumping to another agency like Metro, even though they may offer better benefits.

“I’m honored to be driving the buses and serving the public,” she said. “…I hope this will be my last job ever, and I want to retire from working from here. That’s my hip-hip-hooray for Fairfax Connector and all, but Transdev, y’all can do better. Y’all can do so, so, so much better.”

Johnson says she’s “optimistic” that ATU Local 689 will ultimately secure the benefits workers are seeking from Transdev, but it’s unclear how long the strike might drag on before both parties reach an agreement.

The next confirmed bargaining session will be on March 5, but after Transdev reached out yesterday, talks could potentially resume Monday (Feb. 26), an ATU Local 689 spokesperson says.

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