- Public Safety,
- Public Space,
- John Hendel
For the first time in what feels like ever, Metro employees have taken the communications nightmare that is mass-transit public relations into their own hands. Amalgamated Local 689, the system's largest union with more than 10,000 employees, held a town hall last night with 10 Metro employees, from union president Jackie Jeter to engineers to bus drivers present at the front of the room to answer any questions the public might have. Perhaps around a hundred gathered at the MLK Library at 6 p.m., I judged, and while the mood grew heated, it often remained civil (attendees grew most heated when Councilman Michael Brown showed, causing members of the crowd to shout "No politicians!" and "Just the union!").
Amalgamated Local discussed many things last night from 6 to 8:15 p.m. but here are 9 of the most striking takeaways from the townhall forum:
1. "We are aware of what happened to Dwight Harris." That's how union president, the ever-calm, diplomatic Jackie Jeter described Amalgamated Local's lack of a formal position over alleged Metro police brutality against a local homeless man in recent weeks. The questioner had called Metro police "overly militant and zealous" and asked the union to take a position against such acts. The union doesn't formally represent Metro police, but Jeter acknowledged it had received complaints and is open to dialogue. She also brought up the union's own safety concerns.
"Our concern is the lack of protection that we [Metro employees] receive," Jeter remarked.
2. Are bus stops too close to one another? One big concern was how bus stops have slowed D.C. traffic. "I think Metro doesn't allow operators to tell our story," said Wilbert Cunningham, a Metro bus driver on the panel of union representatives. "We've been shunned time and time again...and believe me, we don't want to do it."
3. Yet bus drivers themselves--when do they stop for the restroom? One question raised this concern, which Jeter called a "growing, growing problem." She said that drivers are basically on their own and women in particular at risk. "The health problem that's causing is growing by the day," Jeter said. Later questions pointed to the difficulties this environment can cause for pregnant drivers.
4. The frustrations of bus drivers and their passengers. Both drivers and riders had their say last night, and the weariness was more than apparent. "Why do they [bus drivers] have to be so rude when saying insufficient funds," one questioner asked, upset over the long process of the SmarTrip pass. "It took me 37 minutes to get two dollars and 10 cents back," the questioner said. She added that some bus drivers are "just plain rude."
Other bus drivers in the audience took the liberty to apologize for late buses, long routes, and other difficulties, and explained their own frustrations. "We're just tired, we're frustrated," one driver said, who had his own issues with how our buses work. "To add money on your SmarTrip card on your bus is too time-consuming--it's a horrible idea!"
5. How Metro workers fight back. Multiple audience members offered what amounted to calls to action against the greater Metro system, but Jeter repeatedly urged temperance. Striking should always be a last option, she insisted, and was not an action that the union would ever lightly consider. She described the struggles employee have endured with Metro, their contract issues heavily debated since 2008. "There has to be a way other than striking," Jeter said, a sentiment she offered on multiple occasions.
6. Security's always on the table. Amid all conversations, from the alleged brutality involving Dwight Harris to a bus driver saying he wish he had a shotgun to a woman who stood up to tell her story of police officers who threw her to the ground and cuffed her for drinking tea, safety was a concern. Union representatives made it clear that this was a number-one priority for both employees as well as something needed for all riders. Jeter called for tougher laws against driver assaults.
7. The sense of underappreciation. When Metro employees spoke, they often projected angst in light of the bureaucratic process they had to fight against. They could often refer problems to management but fell short of the individual power to implement any solutions themselves and often had to make do, whether with the software failure of Metro cards or a bus that's an hour late for passengers.
One point that came up was the reality that D.C. institutions like the Verizon Center, the MLK library, the stadium, and other places central to the District benefit financially from the Metro in enormous ways with no move to pay the system back.
8. Is the system safe? Representatives offered their assessments and questioners their concerns. One questioner who worked with the system dismissed the idea, saying "Metro doesn't have a safety culture." Another talked of the disconnect between employees and authority. "We need to listen to these operators--it's a growing problem." The dialogue on safety reflected many of the broader concerns and improvements Metro has been making, but often returned to the question of communication and a way to effectively listen to people working within the system about its shortfalls.
9. "We will let you know when the second town hall meeting will be held." According to Jeter, the dialogue between the union and the public, one of the first in memory, will most certainly not be the last.