Press Club

The Right Note: Metro’s Biggest Problem With Its Union Contract

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

After two years of working without a contract, a recent arbitration decision set the terms of employment for nearly two-thirds of all Metro employees through 2020. Union members get a small raise retroactive to 2017. In exchange, they will have to pay a higher percentage of their health care costs moving forward. On net, that means labor costs will go up over $60 million through 2020 and WMATA will look to Arlington, among other jurisdictions, to fill in that gap.

The issue that will have the biggest impact on the long term health of the transit agency is pensions. The second largest union has agreed to move to a defined contribution plan for new hires. The largest union refuses to do so.

The arbitration panel punted on the issue this time around. They also refused to cap the use of overtime in the pension calculations. It was a financially irresponsible decision in the face of a $3 billion unfunded pension liability.

Under the terms of the contractual arrangement, both sides are bound to go to arbitration when talks break down. WMATA, which already faces difficulties firing employees, has no real leverage to push for these pension changes as long as the union continues to balk.

Riders and taxpayers in subsidizing jurisdictions will end up shouldering the burden in the near term. Over the long run, the agency cannot sustain the union’s retirement demands. This failure by the arbitrators to address the pension issue now is another reminder that it is probably time to consider a major structural overhaul.

In anticipation of recent repairs, Metro warned riders on affected lines to avoid the system unless they had no other options. More and more, riders are leaving and not coming back. Now that Arlington has a voting member of the Metro Board, we should hear regularly from Christian Dorsey on what reforms he will push for in order to stop kicking the can down the road.

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