Tag Archives: ATU Local 689

George Davis and the Turbulent Times of D.C. Area Transit Union—1974-80

16 Mar
George Davis, new president of the transit union: 1974

George R. Davis, ATU Local 689 president 1974-80.

By Craig G. Simpson

George Davis became president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 January 1, 1974  and headed the union during three illegal strikes.

He oversaw the opening of Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system as well as the early stages of local jurisdictions cutting bus workers’ wages and benefits as they set up replacement bus systems in their counties and cities.

But he also successfully fought to keep a full percentage cost-of-living clause for transit workers and formed a slate that integrated the top officers of the union..

After six years of chaos within the union, he was ousted by a 2-1 margin by a rank-and-file member who had never before held a union office.

As a long-time trade unionist he initially made some good decisions, but at later critical times, he made major errors and continued to compound them one on top of the other.


George R. Davis was elected president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 shortly after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, also known as Metro) acquired four private bus companies in 1973.

For six years from 1974-80 Davis was at the helm of the union during one of its most tumultuous periods: workers went on strike on three different occasions, defying union leadership’s directives to return to work and also staging a work-to-the-rule regarding the safety features on a bus.

Davis was a veteran bus operator who started work for D.C. Transit at its Northern garage on 14th Street NW. He was elected shop steward/executive board member and later secretary-treasurer of the union before he challenged incumbent president George Apperson for president in the December 1973 union elections.

Union and company in transition

Transit workers wildcat over Metro takeover: 1973

Members of ATU Local 1131 stage a 1973 wildcat strike over Metro takeover and merger into ATU local 689.

Streetcar service ended in 1962 and the new Metrorail system would not begin opening until 1976—meaning the transit system was an all-bus system when Davis became president. Four private bus companies were bought by Metro in 1973 to create the regional Metrobus system.

The union itself was also in transition. The two independent ATU unions at the private companies in Virginia—Locals 1131 and 1079—were merged into Local 689. A dispute over whether Local 689 or the incumbent Teamsters would represent the Prince George’s garage had just been resolved in the Teamsters’ favor.

Two of the unions, Teamsters Local 922 and ATU Local 1131, had staged wildcat strikes over the issue of that merger into Local 689.

Operator ranks were initially integrated racially in 1955, and by the late 1970s black operators outnumbered white operators—most having fewer than seven years of service.

These times were right on the heels of the militant antiwar and black liberation demonstrations and protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Further, many black veterans, radicalized by their Vietnam War experience, were also entering the workforce.  Employers across the country had begun to take on unions by trying to increase worker productivity and there was a nationwide strike wave that would last the entire decade.

1973 union election

Apperson begins 3rd term as transit union president: 1971

Davis ousted three-term Local 689 president George Apperson in Dec. 1973.

Davis put together a multiracial ticket for the top five union offices in 1973: Harvey Lee of Northern Division for first vice president, James Buckner of Southeastern Division for second vice president, and Rodney Richmond of Bladensburg Division for financial secretary-treasurer–all black men. A candidate who was the incumbent recording secretary, George Delaney, was added to his ticket.

George Apperson succeeded long-time president Walter Bierwagen in 1964 and led the union battle to obtain an exact-fare policy after the shooting death of operator William Talley in 1968 and came close to calling a strike over missed pension payments by company owner O. Roy Chalk in 1970. Apperson was politically connected and served as president of the Washington, D.C. labor council.

Apperson integrated the officer ranks by adding James Shipman, a black bus operator, to his ticket as second vice-president. Shipman left mid-term and was replaced by Richmond. However, these moves were regarded by the black rank and file as token moves. At the time, the second vice president was not full-time and had no duties spelled out in the local bylaws.

Davis attacked Apperson for “spending too much time on Capitol Hill” and not tending to Local 689 affairs.

In the first competitive election since 1951, Davis narrowly prevailed, 1398-1119. His entire slate won and Rodney Richmond became the first black full-time officer of the local union.

1974 strike

Police Clear Metrobus Strikers from Yard Entrance 1974 # 1

Workers at Bladensburg garage attempt to halt a scab bus from leaving the yard in 1974.

Davis faced an immediate challenge as the new Metro management stalled on contract negotiations–the old agreement was due to expire April 30, 1974. At the center of the controversy was a cost-of-living clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage that the consumer price index increased.

The union pointed to language in federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to diminish the pay or benefits of workers, while WMATA claimed everything would be up for grabs when the contract expired.

Davis called a mass union meeting at the Washington Coliseum on May 1, 1974. It was attended by about 2,000 members who voted to strike beginning May 2nd. The unexpected strike paralyzed the city.

Metro demanded that the union return to work and pointed to the interstate compact that created Metro which provided that “all labor disputes” were subject to arbitration and that strikes were prohibited. Further the WMATA-ATU 689 labor contract language contained a no-strike clause unless the company refused to arbitrate a dispute.

U.S. District Court Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. issued an injunction against the strike on May 3rd and ordered Davis to make a good faith effort to get the members to return to work. Davis called a mass union meeting that night at the Sheraton Park hotel on Woodley Road NW.

Davis announced that a restraining order had been issued and told the 1,000 or so assembled that, “I hate like hell to tell you this, but you’re going to have to go back to work.” He started to read the injunction, but was interrupted by shouts of “wildcat, wildcat!” and members headed for the doors before he could finish reading the judge’s order.

The following day Judge Smith angrily admonished Davis and told him he never should have used the words, “I hate like hell to tell you…” saying that those words amounted to an endorsement of a continued strike.  The judge then placed a $25,000 per day fine on the union for disobeying his order and threatened to jail Davis if he didn’t get the workers to return.

Return to work

Back to work order from the union and company: 1974

Return to work orders from the union and the company following the judge’s order to arbitrate the issues.

With the strike continuing, Judge Smith ordered WMATA and the union to arbitrate their dispute, including the cost-of-living clause, but told the arbitrators to give “great weight” to union contentions that the cost of living wage escalation could not legally be reduced. Metro offered to resume negotiations if the workers returned.

Near-normal bus service was run on May 7th and at least some union members saw the judge’s order as tantamount to victory.

It seemed like a win for Davis, who had called the initial strike, but many in the rank and file saw his order to return to work as weakness and derided what they perceived to be his fear of going to jail.

Further, Davis did a poor job of publicizing and explaining the judge’s directive on “great weight” and a number of members’ perception was that they went on strike for nothing.

Davis compounded negative feelings about the strike among the members by assessing the rank-and-file to pay the fine that the judge ordered.

Following the strike, Davis quickly negotiated an agreement with the transit authority that kept the cost-of-living clause intact. However, members voted down the agreement—largely over a paltry general wage increase—and the humiliated Davis was forced to go back to the bargaining table.

The second agreement that Davis brought back contained only minor changes, but was approved at the ratification meeting. Nevertheless, there were the beginnings of bitterness toward Davis by a section of the rank-and-file union members.

1975 safety check

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974 # 1

A bus displays a “NO Not in Service” sign with a block number “Local 689.”

The WMATA management sought to increase disciplinary penalties for workers in 1975, including harsher penalties for a number of minor offenses.

Meanwhile, the aging buses that WMATA had purchased from D.C. Transit and the other private companies in 1973 were in deplorable condition.

Basic safety features including horns and speedometers rarely worked. Some buses had no mirror on the right side and there were no convex mirrors to detect a vehicle right beside a bus.

Worse, brakes were often slack, tires were bald, and turn signals and brake lights often didn’t function.

In response to the harsh discipline and unsafe equipment and Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over the issues, Davis called a safety check on October 30, 1975. He put the shop stewards in charge at each division to ensure that no bus went out of the garage with safety defects.

Service put out for the morning rush hour that day from Northern and Bladensburg garages–the two largest, along with the small Royal Street garage in Alexandria–was virtually non-existent. Other garages saw delays in getting service on the street. All told about 500 buses out of 1,600 never made it into service.

An individual operator can refuse an unsafe bus, but the union acting together is legally regarded as a “concerted action,” the same as a strike–and strikes by Metro workers had already been found illegal.  WMATA headed to court to get an injunction, but the slowdown was already over.

The direct action was an overwhelming success and WMATA entered serious negotiations and modified its proposed discipline considerably. With the exception of a few disgruntled workers who wanted no change in disciplinary measures whatsoever and a few others who had neglected to fill out the proper paperwork for the day in order to get paid, Davis seemed to finally get a little credit from the rank-and-file workers.

Supplemental rail agreement

D.C. transit union president George Davis: 1978

George Davis in 1978

Davis also led negotiations in 1975 for a supplemental rail agreement to  cover the subway service that wasn’t yet operational. Besides negotiating over classifications, rates of pay, and some work and seniority rules, Davis obtained recognition language that virtually assured that all blue-collar rail workers would be represented by Local 689. Davis thereby settled any question of whether the Teamsters, who retained representation at the Prince George’s bus garage, had any claim on rail work.

Further, he solved much of the problem of disabled bus operators and mechanics. Previously, workers who were physically disqualified from their jobs had been terminated or forced to retire on disability pension if they were eligible—a small sum unless the worker had a lot of service time.

By obtaining language that permitted those disabled workers to take jobs as station attendants (later called managers), Davis enabled many workers to finish their careers as Metro employees.

It was a major victory for Local 689. Davis received little credit for obtaining union recognition for the whole subway system, but the rank and file were reassured by the designation of the station attendant position as one that could be filled by disabled workers.

It seemed as though Davis had perhaps gotten his bearings and was headed for an effective presidency.

Political challenges

Newly elected transit union officers take the oath: 1974

George Davis and Robert Delaney at the union installation of officers in 1974.

After takeover, Metro’s bus deficits began skyrocketing. The four private bus companies combined were running a deficit of about $1 million per year at the time of takeover. By 1975 Metro was running a $50 million per year deficit.

High inflation rates counted for a part of this, new federal regulations another part, unforeseen repairs on the aging buses bought from the private companies, and new, expanded bus service throughout the metropolitan area accounted for nearly all of the shortfall.

However, local political leaders focused on unionized workers’ wages and benefits—particularly the cost-of-living (COLA) clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage rate as inflation in the area.

After Metro failed to modify the cost-of-living clause in the 1974 contract, its sights were set on the upcoming 1976 contract. Local politicians and the three daily newspapers in the D.C. area were beating the drum about eliminating the COLA clause.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County, Maryland began planning to operate its own bus service.

Davis testified at a public hearing against the proposed Ride On service, but unlike his predecessors Apperson and Walter Bierwagen, was only marginally politically involved or connected.

Davis also did not believe in involving the union members in this fight and did not conduct any extensive lobbying or political activity other than his testimony against what would ultimately become county or privately-run bus service in every jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C. area.

Davis also failed to grasp the dangerous effects that public opinion could have on elected leaders, and so he let the increasing attacks on both Metro and the union in the press go unchallenged.

The latter was something that began to loom large with the rank and file membership.

Caucus formed

Action Alliance formed in response to Metro attacks

An agenda from a 1976 union caucus meeting.

The dissatisfaction with Davis’s failure to respond to attacks in the media produced the first organized rank-and-file caucus in 1976.

Management contract proposals were leaked to the union membership by an unknown person(s) and if adopted would have gutted seniority rules, increased the wage progression period to five years, permitted part-time operators, eliminated the cost-of-living clause, and cut back many other pay and benefit provisions.

Not trusting the union officers to lead the fight, a few members from Western, Southeastern and Four Mile garages formed a 20-member group called Metro Employees Action Alliance.

The Alliance put union officials on the spot at union meetings by posing questions such as “I would like to know what the union’s position is regarding the poor, defective, unsafe equipment that we have been driving on the streets….?”

The caucus also raised money, formulated their own proposals for union contract changes, and hired a public relations firm to get the workers’ side of the story into the news media.

Several news features were written and printed in local newspapers as a result of caucus activity, countering some of the negative press.

However, this initial attempt at organization within the union structure fell apart within a few months due to internal dissent. Nevertheless, it spelled trouble for Davis that members were beginning to form their own organization to take on his administration.

Bicentennial

Metro general manager Ted Lutz: 1978 ca.

Metro general manager 1976-79 Ted Lutz.

The celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday was planned for nearly a year before the July 4, 1976 gathering of several hundred thousand on the Washington Monument grounds and on the national mall.

Political leaders in the region agreed to fund special bus service to handle the volume of tourists expected to flood the city in the months leading up to the celebration. On the day itself, those attending the celebration were urged to leave their cars at home and take the special buses provided from fringe parking areas into the city.

The expected crowds of tourists never materialized prior to the celebration and most of the special buses ran empty—meaning an investment of funds that had no return. The local press hammered on this as another barb directed against Metro.

However, on the day of the celebration hundreds of thousands headed downtown heeding officials pleas to use bus service. All went fairly smoothly until the celebration ended with fireworks shortly after 9 p.m.

Metro officials had not coordinated with city officials on how to move several hundred thousand people out of the downtown area quickly. As a result traffic gridlocked and tens of thousands of people were stranded on the national mall until the early hours of the morning.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, Metro took most of the criticism, leading the WMATA board of directors to initiate discussions with a private contractor, ATE, to run the Metrobus system.

Davis was ambivalent about this development, believing the union contract would be honored. Privately he expressed that it might be a good development since labor relations had been somewhat better under the private companies immediately before Metro’s takeover of the buses.

Union members, however, were concerned this was another attack aimed at their wages and benefits, and so disgruntlement with Davis’s leadership grew.

Fortunately for Davis, a new general manager named Ted Lutz was hired and he was an opponent of privatization. Within months after being hired, Lutz made strides toward improving bus service reliability and set goals that were higher than those contained in the ATE proposal.

Lutz told Metro’s board of directors in 1977, “I think we can save money, improve performance and assure an integrated bus rail transit system” by retaining the bus service in-house.

The Metro board of directors ultimately backed Lutz’s approach and Davis was spared what would undoubtedly have been another nail in his coffin.

’76 contract

Transit union president Davis in a happy moment: 1975 ca.

George Davis, right, enjoys a moment of happiness.

Davis went into the 1976 contract negotiations intending to keep the cost-of-living clause intact.

During negotiations, WMATA proposed the use of part-time operators,  believing this would cut costs and arguing that it would prevent local jurisdictions like Montgomery County from taking over Metrobus lines with lower paid workers.

Later during negotiations, they floated the idea of a “suburban rate” (a lower hourly rate) for certain less-productive bus routes as a means of lowering costs.

Davis privately believed that such concessions were necessary to preserve the bargaining unit. However he was fearful of the reaction of the rank and file to any concessions and refused to entertain a modification of the COLA, part-time work, or a suburban rate.

On April 30, 1976, the union invoked arbitration and the matter headed to a three-member panel composed of one union representative, one company representative, and a neutral arbitrator.

When the disputed cost-of-living pay increase came due for the members in the beginning of July 1976 during the arbitration process, Metro didn’t pay it even though the labor agreement between the union and Metro provided that all terms and conditions within the expired contract should remain “undisturbed” while the new agreement was being arbitrated.

Union head and attorneys confer during arbitration: 1976

George Davis (l) confers with union attorneys during an arbitration hearing before Harry Platt in 1976.

However, Davis didn’t challenge the company’s refusal to pay, indicating that the matter would be settled in the contract arbitration.

This seemingly innocuous decision would come back to haunt Davis later in his career.

When the contract arbitration award was announced in late November 1976, the full cost-of-living clause was retained and there were no new provisions for part-time work or a “suburban rate.” There was no general wage increase, but a dental plan was added for the first time. The arbitration award provided for a two-year contract.

However, arbitrator Harry H. Platt ruled that Metro could skip paying the July 1976 COLA payment—one of those that they had not paid in the interim between the nominal expiration of the contract and the arbitration award date.

In the context of the political attacks on the union that were taking place throughout the area, it seemed like a victory for Davis. He said at the time that retention of the COLA “is obviously a victory…we think we deserved it and we kept it.”

Many of the rank-and-file held a different viewpoint. They viewed Davis as responsible for the lost quarterly payment since he did not challenge the issue at the time the payment was due, and they felt the lack of a general wage increase made this a bad contract.

In the end Davis’s victory in keeping the COLA clause produced few rewards for him politically.

’76 union election

Jim Coughlin, Bladensburg shop steward & board member: 1971

Jim Coglin sought to challenge George Davis for president.

The dissatisfaction with Davis led a shop steward/executive board member from the largest bus garage, Bladensburg, to announce his intention to run for president.

James “Jim” Coglin [some spellings were Coughlin] began a series of small meetings with key figures in the union to build support at other facilities.

Coglin came from the same division as Davis’s secretary-treasurer, Rodney Richmond, so it was not clear that Bladensburg’s 1,000 workers would back him in sufficient numbers to overcome Davis’s organization throughout the system.

Coglin was also white and Davis had integrated the top ranks of the union. Nevertheless, Coglin was a serious threat to Davis. But before the nomination meeting was held in November 1976, Coglin died.

Local 689 top officers at their installation: 1977

The five top ATU 689 officers in 1977.

Davis had struck political gold and was re-elected without opposition.

What seemed like good political fortune for Davis was perhaps the opposite. Davis was already distant from the rank and file, rarely venturing into the field. And as a result of Coglin’s death, Davis didn’t campaign and make his case to the members. With hundreds hired within the last few years, many simply didn’t know him.

Ride-On

Black and white version of transit union logo: 1987 ca.

Black and white version of the Local 689 logo.

The first suburban bus system to start running was Montgomery County’s Ride On in March 1975 with two routes. By late 1977 it had taken over some Metrobus routes and had about 30 operators working out of a garage in Brookmont.

Montgomery County Executive James Gleason made clear the reasons for the start-up service in a comment to the Washington Post:

“Our intention is to lower the overall costs to the feeder bus service not only to residents of Montgomery County but elsewhere in the region by running a more efficient service.”

While some savings could be obtained by forgoing federal assistance and related costly disability and safety requirements and by purchasing sub-standard buses, the only place significant savings could occur was in the wages and benefits of operators and mechanics.

Local 689 had not done any real union organizing in many years. The last attempt had been a raid on the Teamsters Union in 1973 at the Prince George’s Metrobus garage that was halted by the International union, which had a “no-raid” agreement with the Teamsters. Prior to that, no one could remember the last organizing attempt.

Craig Simpson, ATU 689 activist and officer: 1982

Craig Simpson as a rank-and-file bus operator in 1982.

The author of this post, Craig Simpson, then a young, 25-year-old rank-and-file operator at Northern Division, had a friend named Marc Miller working at Ride On who was interested in bringing in the union.

Simpson obtained authorization cards from the union office and provided them to Miller. Miller in turn obtained signatures from 28 of the 30 Ride On operators.

The cards were turned into Rodney Richmond, the secretary-treasurer of Local 689. After several weeks Miller kept bugging Simpson about what was going on.

When Simpson went to the union hall at 300 Indiana Avenue NW, Richmond told him that the International said they weren’t interested because it was “small potatoes.”

Union activists could see the writing on the wall. If Montgomery County was successful in lowering wages and benefits for transit workers, the other jurisdictions that made up Metro wouldn’t be far behind—threatening the union’s bargaining power and creating a substandard wage and benefit package that would drag down future contracts with Metro. It was nothing short of a direct assault on transit workers.

Rodney Richmond, first black full-time ATU 689 officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond in 1974 after his election as financial secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

The challenge to organize Ride On was certainly daunting. The operators and mechanics would have to be organized into a union with no collective bargaining rights.

Union resources would have to be spent lobbying on behalf of the Ride On employees, but their union would be toothless without the collective bargaining that would result in a labor agreement.

Obtaining collective bargaining would have required a political effort since Ride 0n was set up using county employees. At the time, the Maryland state legislature informally required a resolution from the county council supporting collective bargaining legislation before they would consider it.

Collective bargaining legislation would also need majority support from the state senators and state representatives elected from the county, according to the informal requirement of the state legislature.

This meant that Local 689 would have to make a political effort without the support of the International union, if it were to pursue an attempt to organize and obtain a labor agreement for the Ride On unit. To put it mildly, politics was not Davis’s strength and no effort was made at that time.

The “small potatoes” that the ATU International cited turned into one of the 20 largest transit systems in the U.S. In 2019 the Ride On system operated 500 buses with over 1,500 operators and support personnel.

The workers are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1994. While they have made significant gains in wages and benefits, they still lag behind Metro workers in total compensation 45 years after operations began.

Word began to spread about the failure to organize Ride On, compounding Davis’s woes.

’78 safety wildcat strike

SE Metrobus Operators Strike Over Safety

Workers at Southeastern Division, where the young woman who was assaulted worked, mill outside the facility during their wildcat strike.

Bus operator anger over assaults, usually during fare disputes, had been growing while Davis and the union seemingly took no action.

Brazen armed robberies began taking place where one robber would board through the front door of a bus and another through the back and they would rob the driver and every passenger on the bus. Other armed robbers pointed firearms at drivers at the end of the bus line while accomplices sawed off the fareboxes and absconded with them.

As the fear of armed robberies and assaults boiled, a 32-year old female bus operator at Ridge Road and Burns Streets SE was raped by a man with a knife.

Operators didn’t wait for the union to act. A strike began May 18, 1978 at the former Southeastern Bus Garage at Half and M Streets SE and spread throughout the day to the Bladensburg Road NE garage and the Northern Garage at 4615 14th Street NW.

Rev. Jerry Moore, a city council and Metro board of directors member, visited the strikers and promised action by the District to protect drivers. Metro’s general manager put out a letter outlining the steps he would take to address their concerns.

A meeting was organized at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening. Striking drivers voted to suspend the strike for two weeks on the condition that a settlement was reached on the safety issue.

Committees were set up at most garages that in turn met with council member Moore.

Government, Management & Union Meet With Striking Drivers

D.C. council member Rev. Jerry Moore, Metro GM Ted Lutz, ATU 689 president George Davis and ATU financial secretary Rodney Richmond meet with disgruntled workers the day after a wildcat strike protesting the rape of a female bus operator.

Davis derided the committee saying, “Committees are fine, but they are not going to be there without union representation because 300 people do not represent 5,000.”

Davis, who had taken no previous action to reduce assaults, now wanted to lead. The slap at the 300 referred to those who attended the RFK parking lot meeting and actually produced results.

Moore, Metro and Local 689 officials met with some drivers the day after the strike. Moore also later held a city council hearing on the issue putting further pressure on the company to act.

The strike resulted in increased police patrols on buses (both Metro and District police), a plexiglass shield installed behind the driver, an emergency “panic button,” and repairs to and activation of non-functioning radios on the buses.

Davis, who was nowhere to be seen during the strike, attempted to take credit for the results and was quoted in the Washington Post, “I feel from what I’ve seen that there definitely has been an all-out effort by Metro to live up to its end of the bargain.”

Those active in the strike derided Davis for the blatant attempt to take credit for something that he had little to do with.

’78 Wildcat Over Cost-of-Living

Mechanics Organize Walkout Over Cost of Living

Metro mechanics at Bladensburg heavy overhaul shop make signs on the first day of the July 1978 wildcat strike.

The union and management had not been able to reach an agreement before the contract expired at midnight April 30, 1978 and Davis again invoked arbitration.

Metro workers remembered the previous contract where they had lost one payment of the COLA, and they blamed Davis for not fighting to enforce the contract language that spelled out that all provisions should remain “undisturbed” during arbitration.

Fresh off the wildcat strike over safety on the buses, frustration with the union bubbled over again at a July 18th meeting of Local 689.

Angry over WMATA’s failure to pay the quarterly cost of living (COLA), union members repeatedly demanded that the union hold a strike vote.

Davis pointed out that a strike would be illegal, based on their experience in the 1974 strike, that he was unwilling to lead another illegal strike, and he refused to conduct a strike vote. He was repeatedly shouted down by the members in attendance.

Davis gaveled the meeting closed and left the hall with other officers.  A rump meeting was then held by about 200 members who called for a strike at 10 a.m. the next day.

Few bus operators initially walked off the job, but a large number of mechanics called out sick while others made strike preparations at the Bladensburg overhaul shop. The afternoon Daily News reported that dozens of mechanics had been fired for halting work.

Anger flashed as news of the harsh discipline spread through the Metro system.

The strike spreads

Metrorail Striker at National Airport 1978

A striking worker pickets the Metro station at National Airport: in 1978: “No cost-of-living, No Work, No Reprisals.”

A meeting held at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening of rank-and-file Metro workers called for a strike to begin at midnight around two demands:  Metro pay the COLA, and amnesty for all strikers.

Workers heeded the strike call on July 20th.  The vast majority of workers at all eight bus garages, including the Prince George’s garage (4421 Southern Ave) represented by the Teamsters, refused to work.  Subway trains, which ran only from Silver Spring to Dupont Circle and from Stadium-Armory to National Airport, were also shut down.

Davis, interviewed at his office by the Washington Post, failed to understand why workers wanted to fight the company and said, “You have employees who are hell-bent on hell-raising. I don’t have the answer to it.”

“A relatively small group is inciting this thing, and they’re getting followers,” Davis said. He added that he agreed with retaining the cost-of-living clause, but he seemingly forgot the lessons of the 1974 strike when he added, “You can’t support a legitimate gripe by illegitimate action.”

The workers held meetings at each reporting location and elected leaders.  In the absence of today’s cell phones and instant messaging, workers held regular meetings of the strike leaders and rank and file at an RFK Stadium parking lot. Pay phone numbers near each facility were exchanged.

William T. Scoggin Jr., an operator from the former Arlington Garage at N. Quincy Street and Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, was elected spokesperson.

Metro responded by temporarily withdrawing discipline and obtaining court injunctions against three individual strikers from Judge Louis Oberdorfer.

But Oberdorfer went beyond listening to the lawyers from Metro and the union. He understood that strikers would listen to neither and appointed two labor lawyers–Charles “Chip” Yablonski (the son of slain reform mineworker president Joe Yablonski) and Charles Booth–to advise him of the strikers’ position and interests.

Future Local 689 president Golash and first woman officer Perrin: 1998

Michael Golash, one of the 1978 strike leaders and a future union president, is shown with Sandra Perrin, the union’s first female executive board member.

The strikers ultimately retained their own attorneys to represent them before Oberdorfer.

On Sunday, July 23 with the strikers holding firm, Oberdorfer ordered WMATA to post a $40,000 per week bond to ensure that the money for the cost of living increase was provided for, ordered expedited arbitration of the COLA dispute, ordered the union and Metro to take increased measures to inform workers their strike was illegal, and threatened to jail strikers who refused his back to work order.

During the hearing under questioning from the judge, Davis denied he attempted to get strikers to return to work by telling them that the cost-of-living issue would be settled by Friday, July 21st.

However, Melvin Brown, one of about 20 striking workers in the courtroom, provided a piece of paper to their counsel.  It was a message to the members over Davis’s signature stating that arbitration of the COLA issue would be completed by July 21st. Davis was caught in a lie in open court and the word spread quickly among the strikers.

Metro Workers Vote to Continue Strike: 1978

Mass meeting at RFK stadium where William Scoggin (with microphone) is replaced by Eugene Ray (just to the left of Scoggin) as strike leader.

A mass meeting was held that Sunday evening at an RFK Stadium parking lot attracting about 400 strikers—a relatively small number.  Scoggin urged a return to work, advising that the workers had won as much as they were going to win.

However, other speakers, including future union president Michael “Mike” Golash, urged a continuation of the strike until amnesty was granted. The television cameras were rolling when Golash came to the microphone and shouted, “Strike, strike, strike!”

In a voice vote, Scoggin was replaced as spokesperson by Eugene Ray, a bus operator from the 4-Mile Run yard located at 3501 S. Glebe Road in Arlington, VA.

On July 24, WMATA responded by re-opening the Metrorail system with supervisors and a few workers who crossed picket lines.  Scoggin’s Arlington Division went back to work along with a few scattered operators at other Divisions.  Management began circulating false rumors that other locations were already back to work.

Hindered by lack of communications, the strikers began to waver and by the afternoon of Tuesday, July 25, service was restored to normal as one location after another returned to work en-masse.

Strike aftermath

Discipline, but no termination for wildcat strikers: 1978

The arbitration award that reinstated four strike leaders with a lengthy suspension without pay.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Flannery fined three individual members for contempt of court for their roles in the strike.  WMATA fired eight strikers, suspended 86 for 1-9 days without pay and reprimanded 54.

The union took the disciplinary cases to arbitration, although it was reportedly a close vote by the executive board as to whether to arbitrate or drop the grievances with Davis in favor of arbitration.

Discipline was ultimately reduced for many who filed grievances through the union, including seven strikers whose terminations were reduced to long suspensions without pay–largely because WMATA had failed to notify employees after two previous strikes that they could be terminated for walkouts.  One fired striker, who did not file a grievance, was not reinstated.

Other than the discipline, the strike ended much as the 1974 strike with a federal judge giving a strong indication of the preferred outcome.  By ordering expedited arbitration of the disputed cost of living payment and having the disputed money put in escrow, Judge Oberdorfer all but assured the strikers of victory on the COLA issue.

Davis acknowledged after the strike that the union needed to implement reforms saying, “There are going to have to be some changes made…better lines of communications with its members.” He told a Post reporter that he was uncertain whether he would seek re-election.

“Undisturbed” arbitration

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch: 1978 ca.

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch in April 1979..

The outcome of the expedited arbitration of the disputed COLA payment was announced August 3, 1978—a little over a week after the strike ended–and proved Davis wrong and the members right.

Arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled that the failure of WMATA to pay the quarterly cost-of-living for the pay period ending July 1, 1978 “resulted in a substantial ‘disturbance’ of existing conditions and, therefore, is a contract violation.”

Scoggins, the deposed strike leader, told the Washington Post, “We’re very pleased…It’s what we expected. The union leadership allowed Metro to get away” without paying the cost-of-living increase.

Another Washington Post news analysis published after the strike found that the union leadership was out of touch with its members.

Douglas Feaver wrote that Davis “cannot remember the last time he was out to visit the union membership in one of the 18 garages and yards the in the areas vast bus and subway network.”

He reported that Davis spoke of the membership prior to the COLA strike, “I can’t control ‘em; I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

’78 contract arbitration

Davis celebrates second term as ATU 689 president: 1977

George Davis, shown in a 1977 photo, took the blame for the introduction of part-time work.

On August 30, 1978, the arbitration of major contract issues was completed with very mixed news for Davis and the union members.

The COLA clause was retained in full, but the panel ruled that Metro could begin hiring up to 10 percent part-time operators with no benefits or seniority.

Part-time work in the transit industry is not really part time. It’s underpaid full time. A person must work the morning and evening rush hour with four to six hours off in between. The length of their day is between 12 and 15 hours, meaning that employment elsewhere is nearly impossible.

The pay hours ranged from 5 to 6 hours per day with no sick leave, holiday pay, vacation, bereavement leave, health insurance or pension benefits.

WMATA believed that part-time employment would save them money, but after more than 30 years of experimentation they found it less costly to hire full time because they could hire more stable, reliable operators.

It was an open secret that Davis favored making concessions to forestall the creation of more suburban bus companies. So while it was a neutral arbitrator who ordered part-time work, Davis and “the union” got the much of the blame from the membership.

New caucuses formed

Caucus denounces union leadership following strike: 1978

At least two rank-and-file caucuses were active following the 1978 COLA strike.

Two organized caucuses flourished in the wake of the 1978 cost-of-living strike.

One was organized as Metro C.A.R (Committee Against Racism), led by Golash.

The other was organized by some of the strike leaders and supporters at a number of garages and shops and was called the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus.

Both caucuses focused their ire on two union officers, George Davis and Rodney Richmond.

In a newsletter issued after the strike, Metro C.A.R. wrote, “First of all, we should oust sellout George Davis who once again showed his true colors (yellow) during the strike.”

The Action Caucus wrote in their newsletter, “When Rodney Richmond announced the contract terms at the special union meeting August 30th at Constitution Hall, he attacked the recent wildcat strike. He stated that arbitration was the best way to resolve disputes and defended the part-time provision, saying that if we didn’t allow part-timers then Ride On type outfits would be set up everywhere…This no-win strategy of our top elected officials must go.”

Richmond’s and Davis’s position was ultimately proved wrong as part-time work expanded to 15 percent and the COLA clause was eliminated in the 1980s at the same time as private low-wage bus service expanded rapidly in the suburban jurisdictions.

Both caucuses continued to attack the union administration and Metro up to the union elections scheduled for December, 1979.

The Metro C.A.R. caucus pressed for strike preparations for the next contract and advocated against white supremacy and against imperialist war, among other issues.

The Action Caucus held a fundraiser for workers fired during the strike, proposed more democratic bylaw changes, and investigated the union’s finances.

The 5-member investigating committee released a 7-page report in October, 1979, just two months before the union election, that found:

“For the year 1978 thousands of dollars were spent for which there is no supporting documentation…In short it is our finding that the Local has been run like a Mom and Pop grocery store rather than an institution with a budget of over $800,000 which is accountable to 4,500 members.”

The committee’s financial investigation just piled on to Davis’s and Richmond’s woes.

1980 union election

Charles Boswell, one-term ATU Local 689 president: 1980

A close associate of William Scoggin, Charles Boswell, announced he would run for president after Scoggin died.

Scoggin, the former strike leader, announced early that he would take on Davis. Walter Tucker, a bus operator at Northern Division was another strong candidate who announced his intention to run for president. Tucker had been the first black shop steward/executive board member when he was elected in 1970.

Others who would announce included Golash, who had urged members not to return to work during the strike; Ray, the strike leader who replaced Scoggin; George Goodwin, another strike leader; Thomas Toomer, a Bladensburg operator; and Will Dietrich, a gadfly from Western Division.

The 55-year-old Scoggin, viewed as a pro-strike moderate, was clearly the strongest candidate to challenge Davis, but once again lightning struck for Davis, and Scoggin died prior to nomination.

A compatriot of Scoggin at Arlington garage, Charles Boswell, entered the race in his place.

As the Local 689 election committee reviewed the records of candidates in November, 1979 after nominations, it disqualified a number of office-seekers.

The local bylaws at the time required attendance at six union meetings per year each year for a two-year period prior to nomination (but including the nomination meeting).

They also required “continuous” union membership for the two-year period prior to nomination, which meant paying your dues prior to being “suspended” from membership. Suspension occurred automatically when someone was two months in arrears in their dues.

Walter Tucker, first black board member of ATU 689: 1971

Walter Tucker, the first black voting member of the union’s executive board was disqualified in his attempt to run for president.

Among those disqualified was Tucker, who had been on workmen’s compensation and neglected to pay his union dues while he was off work. Davis probably thought he’d struck gold again—two of his strongest opponents were out of the race.

Other candidates who were disqualified, including George Goodwin, went to court and obtained  a quick settlement because of their individual circumstances to place them on the ballot and postpone the election a month until January 9th with a runoff to be held January 16, 1980 in instances where no candidate received 50 percent plus one of the vote.

Davis held a strong organizational advantage because the shop stewards in each location were largely backing him, whereas other candidates struggled to identify workers trusted by co-workers in each location who could push their candidacy.

Things started off badly for Davis on election day. When the polls opened at 6 a.m. workers at Southeastern gathered in a group of about 20 and shouted “Davis and Richmond have to go” in front of dozens of other operators. There was no response from Davis supporters.

When the polls closed at 6:00 p.m. the results were brought to the union hall on New Jersey Avenue and Davis still had some hope. When the results were tallied, Davis led the pack with 977 votes or 31 percent of the vote. Charles Boswell, the substitute for the deceased Scoggins, trailed with 740 or 24 percent of the vote.

Under the union’s bylaws at that time it meant a run-off would be held the following week. Things didn’t start out on election day much better for Davis. At Northern Division, a member of Davis’s ticket, Harvey Lee, quit handing out his literature at 7 a.m. as operators tore up Davis’s palm cards and threw them on the floor. Thereafter Lee only handed out his own cards for the next 11 hours of voting.

When the runoff votes were tallied, Davis actually lost votes. Boswell, with absolutely no union experience, handily defeated him 2196-969.

Richmond, a relatively young and bright rising star, was tarnished by his close association with Davis and lost his election as Secretary-Treasurer as well by a 2-1 margin to another rank-and-file member who never held any union office–not even shop steward.

Congratulations to first black ATU 689 recording secretary: 1977

International ATU VP Walter Bierwagen congratulates James “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. in January 1977 on his election as recording secretary.

The only top officer candidate who survived the tidal wave was Recording Secretary James M. Thomas Jr.

During his 3-year term as the recording secretary, Thomas fielded phone calls from members and worked to solve their problems over the phone. He also made regular visits to work locations before and after his office hours at the union hall.  Further, Thomas was politically active in his home state of Virginia. He would go on to win five terms as president from 1983 to 1997.

During the 1980 election, two Action Caucus members won board seats and Metro C.A.R. won one board seat out of the 15 seats available. Allies of the Action Caucus on the Unity Slate, formed to support Tucker’s candidacy, won two of the top five positions: secretary-treasurer and second vice president and also won two additional board seats.

Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus – 1978-80

Action Caucus members running for shop steward in 1980.

Action Caucus members would play key roles in the union in the years to come. Maurice Waller served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division for about 10 years; Phillip Mayo served as shop steward/executive board member from Montgomery Division for three terms, and also as an appointed business agent; Harold Hume served as shop steward from Bladensburg Shop for two terms; James Bynum served as shop steward from both the maintenance department and later among station managers, and as 2nd vice president. Craig Simpson was elected to four terms as shop steward/board member at Northern Division, serving for about 10 ½ years, as an appointed business agent for 4 ½ of those years, and as financial secretary-treasurer for about 7 ½ years.

Mike Golash from the Metro C.A.R. caucus served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division, financial secretary-treasurer, and as president. Gary Young served as a shop steward/executive board member for maintenance.

Afterward

Two union presidents at new transit hall: 1990

James M. “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. (left) and James “Jimmy” LaSala outside the Local 689 headquarters under construction in 1989.

Davis retired after his defeat, living in Hyattsville, Md. He remained active with the Local 689 retirees group, ultimately being elected president. However he remained bitter about his defeat and felt betrayed by those around him and refused to entertain any talk of union politics thereafter.

He is believed to have died sometime in the late 1990s without fanfare.

Richmond made a comeback. He went back to work as a bus operator at Bladensburg garage and rebuilt his base. He ran for president of the union in December 1982 against Boswell but both were defeated by James M. Thomas Jr.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond becomes the first black full-time Local 689 officer in 1973. Here he is shaking hands with former president and then international Vice President Walter Bierwagen at the 689 officers’ installation.

However, Richmond had support at Bladensburg and a few other locations. Instead of continuing to try to run for a top office, Richmond went back and ran for shop steward/executive board member at Bladensburg in the following election and won.

He was poised to run against Thomas again for president, but Thomas instead obtained the support of ATU International President James LaSala and offered Richmond an International vice president position. Richmond accepted and was elected at the convention that followed.

He continued to serve as ATU International vice president until his retirement and in 2020 lives in New Orleans, LA.

Davis’ replacement Charles Boswell, who had no previous union experience, was a fish out of water and struggled throughout his three-year term.

Boswell had never been late to work in his career nor received a disciplinary violation and as a result was insensitive to disciplinary issues. He was unable to relate to the new workers who had defiant attitudes toward management.

Boswell compounded his problems by appointing people with little to no union experience to key positions.

He too tried to run the union from the office and met with the same fate as Davis. Thomas, the sole survivor of the Davis-Richmond era, defeated Boswell handily for president in December, 1982. Thomas went on to serve for 15 years as the union’s first black president.

Discussion

Transit union thanks riders for accepting exact fare: 1968

An advertisement in the Washington Post signed by George Apperson thanking the public for accepting exact fare and political and religious leaders for their help in settling the issue.

It was almost pre-ordained for things to end badly for George Davis. He campaigned against his predecessor George Apperson for spending too much time on politics.

From the beginning, he failed to understand that the new Metro was composed of political representatives from Washington, D.C. and the surrounding counties and engaging in politics was paramount.

Even in the days of private companies, politics were overriding—the union settled a two-month 1955 strike and forced owner Louis Wolfson to sell the company by engaging in political action.

The political pressure after the murder of operator James Talley in 1968 forced the D.C. Transit Company to adopt exact fare—the first company in the nation to do so.

Davis’s predecessor Apperson also used political pressure in 1970 to force D.C. Transit owner O. Roy Chalk to bring his payments to the workers’ pension plan up to date.

It’s not that Davis failed to engage in any political activity. He regularly attended hearings on anti-union bills and testified. Bierwagen would accompany him to meet with pro-labor legislators whom he expected to carry the ball for the union, though they had many other issues to deal with. Davis would also dole out some political donations at election time.

But this minimal level of activity was insufficient for the forces arrayed against him and he did not rise to the challenge.

Union head calls strike vote over missed pension payments: 1970

George Apperson, Local 689 president 1964-73.

Davis also compounded his initial error of eschewing intense political action by failing to learn the lessons of the strike he led in 1974 and the slow-down he led in 1975. Both of those direct action work stoppages resulted in victory for the union, but Davis rejected the tactic (or even threatening them) thereafter.

The authorities condemn the use of illegal strikes and other direct action tactics and utilize the courts to try to break them. But many workers see labor laws as unjust and favoring the employers and don’t feel bound to obey them. Attempting to defend workers’ rights solely by using legal means often leads to defeat.

Davis’s rejection of outlawed tactics after 1975 would haunt him in 1978 when without his leadership the rank and file staged two strikes that led to improvements in safety and a payment of the cost-of-living clause under the “undisturbed” language of the contract.

He made a major error in judgment when he failed to attempt to organize the Ride On workers at an early juncture. Workers in the region are plagued 45 years later with substandard wages and benefits on transit operated by every jurisdiction that makes up the WMATA service area.

The issue of making concessions in union contracts is controversial among the members. However, it’s really a matter of fighting the company with all the tools at your disposal—direct action, mobilization of members, political involvement, lobbying, public relations, organizing—before making decisions about tactical moves in contract negotiations.

If you are able to defeat the company’s or others’ adverse action, so be it. However, if the forces against you are stronger than yours, then concessions may be necessary to preserve the bargaining unit as a fighting force and live to fight another day.

Transit union president George R. Davis: 1979

George Davis at WMATA headquarters in 1979.

The problem with Davis’s actions is that he did not use all the tools at his disposal to fight the company, the political attacks and the threat of non-union bus companies. Nor did he have fortitude to make concessionary agreements to forestall hostile action against the union and risk rank-and-file ire. It was the worst of both worlds.

He might have personally survived these major errors as president for a bit longer if he had made his case to the rank and file with regular visits to work locations.

Davis didn’t understand the changes in the workforce that were taking place. Workers in the 1970s were radicalized by the experiences of the 1960s and Davis was far removed from those struggles.

But by his own admission, he rarely spent time talking to the members where they worked. Perhaps if he had, he might have gained greater insight into their thinking and altered his own decision-making. You can’t lead union members from the union office.

It was somewhat of a tragedy for a man who spent his life trying to better the lot of workers but who ended up on the wrong side of the fight. But he repeatedly made bad choices and paid the price.

Local 689 revives the strike tactic after 40 years: 2019

Workers on strike against the substandard wages and benefits of a private Metrobus contractor in 2019.

The union revived the strike tactic in 2018-19 by staging a series of mini-job actions, primarily against Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over disciplinary policies. These actions culminated in a strike vote by the whole membership, after which WMATA began to engage in serious negotiations.

The transit union today is confronting head-on the challenges that privatization of transit in the area brought. A strike at Metro’s privatized Cinder Bed Road division led Metro to agree to bring the work back in-house and cancel plans to privatize the Dulles Metrorail yard.

ATU ultimately engaged in organizing the private companies in the jurisdictions that make up Metro, staging a strike in 2019 at three Fairfax Connector garages. They have organized D.C. streetcar and Circulator buses and the Alexandria DASH system as well as a number of paratransit companies.

Politics is now part and parcel of ATU Local 689’s activities and they are well known in every jurisdiction, both for lobbying and for electoral work. And Local 689 regularly attempts to turn out members for actions.

Personal Notes

Longtime union activist pushes MoCo minimum wage: 2013

Craig Simpson speaking on behalf of UFCW Local 400 at a Montgomery County, Md. minimum wage rally in 2013.

I was a young headstrong bus operator during Davis’s tenure and was a member at age 25 of the Metro Employees Action Alliance in 1976 and later the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus 1978-80.

I was convinced that Davis was a sellout and the “Davis-Richmond clique” needed to go.

It was the beginning of my political involvement in the union that would result in 18 years on the union executive board beginning in 1983 before I retired in 2001–serving as shop steward/executive board member, appointed business agent and secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

As the years went by I took a more nuanced view of  George Davis.

He was trained in business unionism that emphasized grievance handling and contract negotiation and de-emphasized member mobilization for direct action, political action and organizing.

While he was a dedicated trade unionists and could be proud of the work he did maintaining the cost-of-living clause, obtaining the supplemental rail agreement and integrating the ranks of the top officers of the union, he made too many wrong decisions and failed to use all the tools at his disposal during the period 1974-80.

After I retired from Metro with 27 years of service in early 2001, I went on to do contract work for the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, Progressive Maryland, ATU Local 689 and Maryland Commons. I obtained my degree in labor studies from the National Labor College and I finished my career as executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 from 2013-2016. I now administrate and write blog posts and photo descriptions for the Washington Area Spark websites.

Sources

Sources include documents of the Metro Employees Action Alliance, Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus and Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR), Local 689 newsletters, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, and the personal recollections of the author.

Related Blog Posts

The D.C. black liberation movement seen through the life of Reginald H. Booker [January 28, 2020 by Craig G. Simpson] The author takes you through the long activist career of D.C. black nationalist Reginald Booker who led the fight against new freeways in the city, for public takeover of the private D.C. Transit, for building the Metrorail system, for hiring, upgrading and promoting black people in the construction industry and the federal and District of Columbia government. A prominent member of the Black United Front, he also led fights against police brutality among a host of other rights issues.

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945 [May 10, 2015 by Daniel Hardin]: In the midst of a struggle over integration and pent-up wage demands following World War II, transit workers in Washington wage a battle to better their conditions and in the process set the stage to transform their union.

The DC women streetcar operators of World War II [March 20, 2013 by Craig Simpson]: In the midst of a World War II shortage of operators and a campaign by African Americans to integrate the operator ranks, the transit company hires women for the first time to pilot the city’s streetcars and buses.

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55 [October 14, 2012 by Craig Simpson]: The long struggle to integrate Washington’s Capital Transit Company operator ranks—from World War II to the early years of the modern civil rights movement.

Related Images

ATU 689 officers

Hattie Sheehan

Frances Lewis

O. Roy Chalk

Walter Bierwagen

Group Health: 1959

No fare hike: 1966-72

Exact bus fare: 1968

D.C. streetcar women: 1943-60

Transit strike: 1974

ATU 689 birth: 1916-17

On the job murder at Metro: 1974

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974

Fighting Capital Transit racism: 1941-55

Transit strike: 1955

Transit strike: 1951

Capital Transit strikes; 1945

DC Metro wildcat strikes: 1978

Related documents

White Man’s Road Through Black Man’s Home – 1968

Second Rally to Re-Open the 69 Confiscated NE Homes – June 1969

Smash the 3-Sisters Bridge – Nov. 1969

Victory Celebration of the 3-Sisters Bridge Decision: Oct. 1971

WMATA & union letters ordering striking workers back to work – May 1974

Arbitration award on Metro strike discipline – 1978

Files of the Metro Employees Action Alliance – 1976

WMATA management proposals for contract changes – May 1, 1976

Questions to be asked at the union meeting  – May 18, 1976

Summary of Metro contract proposals circulated to union membership – circa May 22, 1976

Caucus meeting agenda – May 28, 1976

Draft notice to members of Metro’s contract proposals  – circa May 28, 1976

Files of the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus

Action

Vol. 1 No. 1 – Sept. 5, 1978

Vol.1. No. 2 – Oct. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 3 – Nov. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 4 – Jan. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 5 – Jun. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 6 – Aug. 1979

Action Caucus Minutes, flyers and election flyers

Caucus minutes – 7/30/78 – 10/1/78

Turn out for the arbitration hearings flyer – 8/21/78

Report of the Local 689 audit committee – 10/2/79

A vote for Mayo-Waller-Simpson is a vote for change – election flyer 11/79

Elect the Unity Slate platform – 11/79

Letter on the disqualification of Walter Tucker as presidential candidate—11/19/1979

Vote January 9 Mayo-Waller-Simpson—1/9/80

Vote Mayo-Waller-Simpson in the runoff elections—1/16/80

Attend the new officers installation—2/80

Unofficial election results—2/80

Files of the Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR)

Metro C.A.R. – August 1978 ca.

Strike Wave at Washington, DC’s Capital Transit: 1945

10 May
Transit Union Members At Pythian Temple:

Union members outside Pythian Temple Nov. 6, 1945.

By Daniel Hardin

“Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands.”

Walter H. Vanstavern

Nearly 4,500 workers on the Washington, D.C. Capital Transit streetcar and bus system went on a wildcat strike November 6, 1945 to demand higher wages, despite a no-strike provision in the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees (the Amalgamated) Division 689 and the company.

The strike ended briefly with a truce, but a second wildcat strike took place two weeks later that ended when the U.S. government seized the company and threatened to operate the system with U.S. troops.

Post-War Turmoil

The Capital Transit strike was part of perhaps the greatest strike wave in U.S. history–during 1945-46–that involved upwards of 4.5 million workers across the country.

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner's Arena in 1946

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner’s Arena before strike in 1946..

As GIs returned to the U.S. and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries. Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.

The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.

Division 689

Division 689 of the Amalgamated was established after a one-day strike in 1916 at the Capital Traction and the Washington Railway & Electric companies. A year after the settlement WRE president Clarence King sought to break the union when he fired key union supporters and refused to negotiate a new agreement, instead offering individual contracts to workers.

Crowd Blocks Scab Streetcar During Transit Strike: 1917

Workers & supporters halt a scab WRE streetcar at 9th & F St. during a 1917 strike.

Capital Traction settled the day before a scheduled strike. The union called a strike against the larger WRE, but the company operated with strikebreakers and broke the union. The unionization of city lines wasn’t completed again until Capital Traction merged with the WRE to become Capital Transit in 1933 and applied the union contract to all workers.

The defeat at WRE in 1917 loomed large over the union leaders for the next two decades and as a result they pursued a policy of accommodation with the company. The old guard was defeated in 1940 by upstarts calling for a more militant approach, but former president William F. Simms recaptured the position by defeating Jonathan G. Bigelow in 1944 by accusing him of being soft on resisting de-segregation of bus and trolley operators.

Segregation

The transit companies in Washington, D.C. had no practice or law requiring Jim Crow seating like those south of the Potomac River, but the D.C. companies had long refused to hire African American operators or conductors.

In 1940 a group of young activists began undertaking a campaign to integrate the Capital Transit operator ranks through education, pickets, lobbying and demonstrations. The federal government had the power to integrate the company during World War II through a Fair Employment Practices Commission; however, despite repeated promises they had failed to do so by 1945.

Jonathan G. Bigelow, Transit Union Division 689 President: 1940

Jonathan G. Bigelow, union president 1940-44.

While Bigelow was union president, he took the position of the Amalgamated’s International Union that the union accepted anyone who was hired. Indeed, he pointed out that hundreds of maintenance employees were African Americans. But he warned that bus and streetcar operators might not accept black drivers and would likely strike if they were employed. Simms was not so reticent He vowed to oppose any attempt to hire African Americans.

Against this background of pent-up wage demands, talk of strikes opposing integration, the end of World War II and the beginning of a new general labor militancy, the Capital Transit workers gathered at a union meeting to consider their situation.

 The Strike Begins

In October 1945, Capital Transit rejected the union’s wage demands. To put pressure on the company, Simms called for a “continuous union meeting” to begin at midnight at the Gayety theater near 9th & E Streets NW. It was attended by around 2,500 workers.

The strike effectively began at 2:30 am on November 6, 1945 when the first trains and buses were due to leave their barns and workers were still in their meeting.

Idol is Idled by Streetcar Strike: 1945

A man listens for a streetcar on the 2800 block of 14th St. in the early hours of the first 1945 strike.

The strike left heavily-streetcar-dependent Washington paralyzed. Over 500,000 passengers normally made between 1.2 and 1.5 million trips per day.

Without any preparations for the strike, the federal government opened on time, but closed two hours early. Downtown department stores closed at 4:30 p.m. All district government employees except firemen and police were let out at 3:30 pm.

The Washington Post wrote, “Scenes on the Capital’s streets included: a naval officer pedaling a bicycle with a government stenographer in a basket on the handlebars; a Negro riding to work on horseback, and a youth zigzagging down Sixteenth Street on roller skates he obviously hadn’t used for years.”

“Among the hundreds of thousands affected by the strike were delegates to President Truman’s labor-management conference called to write a national peace formula for industry and labor. They had to depend on scarce taxicabs or private automobiles,” the Washington Post reported.

The rolling union meeting shifted to the Pythian Temple on 9th Street between L Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the morning and still later to Turner’s Arena at 14th Street and W Street. NW, where 3,000 union members showed up.

Capital Transit Union Leaders in mid-20th Century

New negotiating committee (l-r) W. H. Van Stavern, Walter J. Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna with transit union president William F. Simms.

The raucous meeting was divided into two points of view—one urging a return to work and the other wanting to continue to exercise their newfound power. An early sign of how the meeting was to go came when a new negotiating committee was elected composed of a more militant trio, Walter Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna and Walter H. Vanstavern.

Simms, the Amalgamated’s International secretary-treasurer Sam Berrong, and federal mediator Richard W. Goodrick all urged a return to work.

“The company is more than willing to enter negotiations with the union. But the company insists that the terms of the contract, which requires that ‘service shall not be interfered with’ be honored. Go back to your jobs and I am sure that you and the company officials can get together,” Goodrick told the crowd

 Compromise or Unusual Manner?

Vanstavern, newly elected to the negotiating committee spoke next: “Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands. We regard the sentiments of our International leaders and our own president with considerable deference. But this is an unusual controversy which must be handled in an unusual manner.”

Transit Union Strike Meeting: 1945

“Continuous meeting” of DC transit union at Turner’s Arena on 14th St. NW

Vanstavern’s words were met with 10 minutes of shouting, foot stamping and applause by supporters of the new negotiating committee. The workers voted to continue the strike.

E. D. Merrill, president of Capital Transit, responded that the company would lose $2.5 million annually if the workers were awarded their demand of a $0.30 per hour raise to all workers. Instead he offered to incorporate the $0.07 per hour bonus that was already being paid into the basic rate—the same offer he had made in October—well before the strike.

Government Intervention

The federal government immediately reacted to the strike. More than 500 military MPs at Ft. Myer were put on alert. Labor Department Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach and Sen. Jennings Randolph, chair of the House District Committee, met the union leaders and the company during the morning of Nov. 7th.

DC Transit Union President Confers with Mediator: 1945

Simms (right) confers with federal conciliator Richard Goodrick (center).

Randolph made the implicit threat of government seizure when he said that President Truman had told him to “step in and help end the dispute that had seriously impeded the government of vitally needed Government employees.”

The National Negro Congress issued a statement calling for granting the wage increase to the workers, but urged the company to desegregate its operators at the same time.

The company issued a statement refusing to bargain, citing a “no interruption of service” clause in the union’s contract.

 Union Demands

The union demands centered on increasing pay to $1.25 an hour as a basic wage for operators and to which other classifications were tied. The current wage was $1.02 per hour that consisted of $0.95 cents basic wage and $0.07 an hour wartime bonus. Mediation in October 1945 had recommended no increase beyond incorporating the $0.07 bonus into the basic wage, a proposal the union rejected.

Workers in most departments, including bus and streetcar operators, had been working an average of 48-hour work weeks that were threatened with cut back to 40 hours as members of the armed services were released from duty. In order to make up for the lost pay, the strikers were demanding the wartime bonus be incorporated and an additional $0.23 be added to make up for lost earnings plus a nominal increase in take-home pay.

Company President Refuses to Hire Black Operators 1941

E. D. Merrill, Capital Transit Co. president

“E.D. Merrill, president of the Capital Transit, said that if the workers were paid the 30 cent an hour increase they are demanding, the company would have to raise car and bus fares to meet the added operating costs,” the Washington Post reported.

“To raise the fares charged now the company would have to petition the District Public Utilities Commission and show cause why they should be raised,” said Merrill.

“To do that would result in a long dragged out rate case that would probably take months to settle. And there’s no way you can charge bus and streetcar passengers retroactively for underpaid fares. No one can say exactly how much it would cost the company,” Merrill stated, according to the Washington Post.

 Capital & Labor

The union adopted a position that was later cemented during the 1955 strike and continues to underpin the union’s position on wages and benefits today.

Streetcar Union Members at Pythian Temple: 1945

Transit workers outside the Pythian Temple during “continuous union meeting.”

It can be summed up as follows: that the workers have value and needs independent of the company’s profit (or later the government’s funding) and in a society of tremendous wealth—those needs must be met.

But even without the union adopting that position, Capital Transit owned outright nearly all its facilities and equipment, had little debt, good operating profits, and large cash reserves.

Truce

The union’s negotiating committee reconsidered their bargaining position and entered into a temporary truce calling for a 14-day cooling off period.

At the same time the truce was reached, taxicab drivers of Local 953 of the Taxicab Operators Union were meeting to consider joining the strike.

The 1:00 pm meeting of about 3,000 seesawed back and forth between speakers calling for a continuation of the strike and those who urged backing the negotiating committee. In the end, the union members voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. It contained three points:

  1. That the prestrike status quo be restored
  2. That all employees be returned to work without discrimination or penalties against strikers or the union.
  3. That negotiations proceed for a 14-day period before a special three-man Conciliation Service panel.
Sam Berrong, Transit Union Official During DC Strike: 1945

Sam Berrong, the Amalgamated’s International representative during the strike.

After the ratification vote, Berrong told local union leaders that; “I want to congratulate you on your decision. I happen to know that if you hadn’t decided to go back to work, the Army was prepared to take over at 2 o’clock,” according to the Washington Post.

Transit service began to be restored at around 1:30 pm and was completely restored by 9 pm November 7th.

Negotiations over the next two weeks moved slowly but the agreed-upon deadline was moved up just prior to Thanksgiving. On Tuesday Nov. 20th a tentative agreement was reached and a union meeting was called for midnight at Turner’s Arena.

Wildcat Strike

Union president Simms presented the proposal that called for arbitration to resolve the pay dispute. In no uncertain terms, the 3,000 assembled rejected the proposal and voted to strike in the early morning hours of November 21st. Simms then recessed the meeting until 1:00 pm.

Service was crippled on the day before Thanksgiving and the federal government reacted quickly.

Office of Defense Transportation (ODT–a World War II agency) director of highway transport Guy A. Richardson appeared before the 1:00 pm union meeting and announced President Harry Truman’s decision to seize the company and operate it.

Berrong, the representative of the Amalgamated’s International union, and Simms both denounced the strike and pledged cooperation with the federal government to end it.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Union member Thelma Hodges speaks out at Turner’s Arena during the strike.

Union members rushed to the microphones and shouted out a motion to continue the strike that Simms in turn ruled out of order. Union members called for Simms’ impeachment, but he ignored them.

Some of the assembled workers began to drift out of the meeting while others debated the next course of action. Someone ordered the lights cut at 5 pm and the debate continued out on the street.

Truman Denounces Strike

President Truman issued his formal seizure order at 3:00 pm, saying the work stoppage “strikes…at the very roots of orderly government” and vowing that, “The federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”

Seized Trolleys, Buses Begin Operating: 1945

President Truman seizes Capital Transit and activates the U.S. Army.

As Truman spoke, thousands of troops in the Washington Military District were placed on alert. Brig. Gen. Robert N. Young, the commanding general of the district, announced, “We are prepared to do anything that ODT requires,” and said he had “more than 4,000 men who can serve as bus or streetcar operators—or as military police.”

While the union members continued to debate at Turner’s Arena, others headed back to work.

The first streetcar left the Southern Division barn at Maine Ave. SW at 3:07 pm and the first bus left the Trinidad Division at 15th & Benning Road NE at 6:10 pm Most service was restored Thanksgiving Day, and Friday, November 23 saw a complete restoration of service.

Aftermath

Following the strike, Capital Transit fired a number of men who were accused of urging a continuation of the strike at the Brookland Division near 10th St. and Michigan Ave. NE.

Idled Streetcars During 2nd Strike: 1945

Idled streetcars Nov. 22, 1945 while striking workers begin to return to work.

One of those discharged, Ernest M. Hatfield, said “I didn’t attend the continuous meeting of the union either November 7th or last week, In fact I didn’t know about the first strike and reported to work as usual. The company refused to give me my equipment that morning when I showed up for work,” according to the Washington Post.

“I have worked seven days a week for months. I have a wife and two small children. My hours at work were from 6 am to 10 pm. Every day but Sunday. Sundays I worked from noon to 9:30 pm. The only hours I got to see my kids when they weren’t asleep was before noon on Sunday. I tried to do my bit for the company during the war. I can’t understand their action yesterday. I have had only two days off since August 12—more than three months,” Hatfield declared.

A month later, the union settled the grievances of the nine terminated men to return them to work without back pay.

Congressional Reaction

While union power was being demonstrated across the country, many Congressional leaders were denouncing the workers’ actions, and particular ire was directed at the Capital Transit strikers.

The Washington Post reported that “Congress…reacted to the Washington transit, General Motors and Chicago telephone strikes with a whole series of moves aimed at organized labor.”

Representative Eugene E. Cox (D-Ga.) declared, “The goons have the country at bay,” and labeled it “an assault of organized outlaws.”

Senator Alexander Wiley (R-Wi) called the strike, “intolerable and outrageous.”

Representative Charles a Halleck (R-Ind.) offered, “The transit workers are out today in violation of their contract and the company is entirely without recourse.”

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A union caravan in Washington, D.C. urges a veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Representative Roger C. Slaughter (D-Mo.) suggested the transit workers could be sued for damages under the terms of a bill he supported.

Despite having the greatest number of workers involved in militant action in the history of the U.S labor movement during 1945-46, labor leaders were unable to consolidate their gains. Instead a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators acted to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—severely restricting union and individual rights.

Segregation

Activists in the five-year fight to desegregate Capital Transit were buoyed by the opportunity presented by the federal seizure of the company. The wartime FEPC had repeatedly found against the company, but had not enforced their order to desegregate.

Transit Union Members at Pythian Temple (African Americans): 1945 # 1

Capital Transit barred African American transit union members (shown at Pythian Temple)  from operating buses and streetcars.

In August 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of the Philadelphia Transit Company during a wildcat strike and enforced the integration of operator ranks. However, in the case of Capital Transit Truman refused to do so. Charles Hamilton Houston, a longtime civil rights leader serving on the FEPC, resigned denouncing the government’s lip service to desegregation.

The Capital Transit Company’s operators were not desegregated until 1955 while the union prepared for another showdown with Capital Transit.

Pay issue Arbitration

The three member arbitration panel (one company, one union and one neutral) voted 2-1 January 2, 1946, with the company dissenting, to increase the basic wage for operators to $1.14 per hour and to guarantee a 48-hour week until the expiration of the current contract in June 1946. The increase made the union members the highest paid on the East Coast.

However the company refused to comply until the Wage Stabilization Board acted, although wage board and company agreed that its action was not necessary. Ultimately the company relented and paid the increases.

The new insurgent forces within the union were satisfied. They felt the strikes had served their purpose and they would never have received the increases without demonstrating the seriousness of their demands though the strikes.


Union President With Members After Strike Ends: 1955

Walter Bierwagen (right) relaxes with members after the vote to end the 1955 strike.

Author’s Notes:

Walter Bierwagen, a member of the 1945 negotiating committee, cut his teeth in the 1945 wildcats and went on to defeat William Simms in the 1950 Division 689 elections. He applied the lessons learned during the 1945 wildcats—that increasing the amount of public support and a united membership would be essential to outright winning a strike. Further, that stage must be set so that government intervention was on the side of the strikers—not the company.

Dependent on African American support for his election, he led the union in a 1951 strike that established seniority rights for track and maintenance departments where many African Americans worked, and ultimately forced a resolution through the union’s executive board and membership endorsing desegregation in 1955.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Walter Bierwagen (right) congratulates first ATU Local 689 African American officer Rodney Richmond at a 1974 installation of officers..

He made a very public case in 1955 that Capital Transit’s owners had looted the company at the public’s expense. He led a two-month strike in 1955 that won a small wage increase but firmly established a principle that workers had value independent of the way the company was run.

During Bierwagen’s tenure as head of the local transit union, pension and health and welfare benefits were established. He was elected a vice president of the international union, where he played a crucial role in protecting transit workers’ bargaining rights as public entities took over private transit companies.

The strike wave of 1945-46 was a missed opportunity for workers. Failure to consolidate gains directly led to the crippling Taft-Hartley Act. In turn that has in large part resulted in the past 60 years of defensive battles by workers while union density declines.

Sources include The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Afro American, and surviving records of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 among others.


Postscript: Early D.C. Transit Union Organizing

Amalgamated Associated of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 (currently named Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689) was established in the Washington, D.C. transit system after a one-day strike March 5-6, 1916. It was settled when District government officials stepped in and brokered an agreement to arbitrate disputes not settled. The ad-hoc agreement was for one year.

Knights Street Car Union President: 1895

Earlier efforts at organizing transit workers in Washington, D.C. met with brief successes, but ultimate defeat. The Knights of Labor established a Street Railway Protective Association in the 1880s that waged several strikes against street railway companies and achieved some success in improving wages and working conditions under the leadership of Thomas J. Lawrence before falling victim to the weaknesses in the Knights’ organization around the turn of the century.

There was a brief strike on the Metropolitan Railroad in 1900. Division 161 of the Amalgamated was established by 1901 and achieved early success on uniform issues. However, by October 1901 the Capital Traction Co. fired union president John McCrackin and the union lapsed shortly afterward.

Organizing efforts continued with attempts to establish the Amalgamated in 1907 and 1909, before Division 689 was established in January 1916.

The union currently represents 13,000 active and retired, bus and rail employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as some paratransit workers at private companies.

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The Fight Against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring: 1941-55

14 Oct
Thousands rally for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 17)

Hundreds rally in Franklin Park May 7, 1943 against Capital Transit’s refusal to hire African-American streetcar and bus operators. Photo by Paul M. Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

by Craig Simpson

In 1941, a group of predominantly young African American activists organized to take on the challenge of integrating one of the most visible examples of job discrimination in the city:  The Washington, DC Capital Transit public transportation system.

The 15-year campaign went through a period of highs and lows as the company, aided at times by the union representing its workers and the federal government, stubbornly clung to its racist practices before finally succumbing in 1955.

Background

The District of Columbia never had Jim Crow seating on public transit (unlike neighboring Maryland and Virginia) dating back to fights Sojourner Truth and Sen. Charles Sumner waged in the 1860s, but almost everything else in Washington, DC was segregated, including schools, parks, swimming pools, movie theaters and restaurants. Perhaps even more important, good paying jobs were reserved for white men only, with few exceptions.

Prior to the US entry into World War II, a rapid expansion of the government and the related defense industry was bringing an end to the Great Depression.

Jewel Mazique: A founder of the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 1)

Jewel Mazique, a founder of the Capital Transit campaign, at a United Federal Workers meeting in 1942. Photo by John Collier, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (leading African American members of the Socialist Party) organized a “March on Washington” movement to demand desegregation of government and defense jobs scheduled for July 1, 1941.  President Franklin Roosevelt tried desperately to head off the march and ultimately created a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) with oversight of the defense industry in return for cancellation of the march.

Following this development, a local campaign to desegregate employment spearheaded by a dynamic group of young African American activists who set up a “Washington Initiating Committee” of the National Conference on Negro Youth in the city in October 1941.  The group initially planned to use direct pressure on companies and federal agencies.

Key participants included Thelma Dale (Washington Negro Youth Federation), Marie Richardson (United Transport Service Employees Union-Red Caps), Henry Thomas (United Construction Workers Organizing Committee) and Jewel Mazique (Delta Sigma Theta), all of whom became prominent African American organizers in the city.

Initial Campaign

The group selected as its first target the Capital Transit Company that provided streetcar and bus service throughout the District.  The company refused to hire African Americans as operators with the management citing rampant racial prejudice in the city as an excuse.  As many as 20% of the workforce were African Americans employed in the maintenance section of the company, but were concentrated in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

The committee began by soliciting letters to the company by the local NAACP and other organizations.  Foreshadowing the Montgomery bus boycott by a dozen years, sixty workers at the Cook’s Waste Paper Factory at 59 Pierce Street NE added their disapproval and agreed to take any action necessary, including walking to work.

Company president E. D. Merrill responded with a flat-out refusal to consider breaking the barrier and his response triggered a stepped up campaign.  The group continued to gain endorsement of its goals and in April 1942, the campaign was given another boost when Walter White, national secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) condemned Capital Transit’s hiring policies.

In August, Amalgamated Association of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 president J. G. Bigelow sought and received a letter from the union’s International president W. D Mahon that restated the union’s policy against discrimination. Bigelow, considered a moderate on racial issues by the standards of the times, defeated old guard president William F. Sims in 1940.

Mahon’s letter concluded, “I realize how some of your membership, being Southerners, feel on this mater, but you must take into consideration the fact that we are now engaged in a war in which the colored man is called upon to do the same line of duty that the white man is called upon to do, and any discrimination that would attract public attention at this time would be very detrimental, and especially coming out of Washington.”

The Fight Broadens

Fighting Jim Crow at Capital Transit: 1942 (Photo 2)

Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities Dec. 1942.William S. Johnson, chair (center) & Ralph Matthews from the Afro (leaning over).  All rights reserved © Afro-American.

The issue began to take on national importance as African American newspapers across the country began covering the issue.

A broader group was organized August 15, 1942 as The Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities by its chair, William S. Johnson (Hotel & Restaurant Employees Local 209) and other local African American union leaders and activists.

The committee set up shop at 2001 11th Street NW (currently occupied by a branch of the Industrial Bank) after initially holding meetings at the offices of the Afro-American and the International Workers Order.

Sponsors were solicited that included both local and national representatives ranging from Charles Hamilton Houston (former NAACP counsel), Ralph Matthews (Baltimore Afro-American), Mary McLeod Bethune (National Council of Negro Women) to Communist Party members like Doxey Wilkerson.  Several members of Congress were also sponsors of the committee.

The broader committee shifted strategy and began organizing to pressure the federal FEPC to take action against Capital Transit and force the company to desegregate.

The expansion of government meant thousands of new workers in the city at a time when young men were being drafted into the armed forces.  This resulted in a shortage of streetcar and bus operators and Capital Transit advertised daily for new operators.  This provided an opening that the committee exploited by taking out a large advertisement in the Washington Post calling for the hiring of “qualified negro operators” and for a mass meeting Nov. 3, 1942.

Crowd at Rally for Integrating Capital Transit 1942 (Photo 10)

Hundreds rally to demand Capital Transit hire African American streetcar & bus operators, Nov. 3, 1942. Photo by Gordon Parks, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The meeting was timed to precede hearings on Capital Transit hiring policies by the FEPC. Hundreds came out to hear Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (then city councilman in New York City), Houston (then in private practice) and Henry Rhine of the Washington Industrial Council, CIO and others speak at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, 1630 Vermont Ave. NW.

The FEPC held hearings Nov. 23 and issued an order Nov. 30 that Capital Transit bring its policies into compliance with federal guidelines. The company president E. D. Merrill again responded that the time wasn’t right because company operations could be disrupted.

However, on February 1, 1943 the company hired Bernard Simmons, an African American, as a streetcar trainee. When Simmons was assigned to the Benning Road barn (Trinidad Division once located at 15th & Benning Road NE) for on-the-job training, a white operator refused to train him. Fifteen other white operators threatened to turn in their traps (quit working), according to the company. The company offered Simmons a janitorial job and when he refused, they fired him.

Meanwhile, to address the shortage of operators, the company began training white women to operate streetcars and shortly afterwards put them into service.

Streetcar operators relaxing on the steps of Capital Transit’s Northern Division in June 1943

Women streetcar operators shown at 14th St. barn, June, 1943. Photo by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The committee renewed its offensive in the spring of 1943 with a week of action beginning May 3 in advance of a new FEPC hearings scheduled later in the month.  The week began by picketing the company headquarters at 3600 M Street NW with a “blue ribbon” group of prominent national leaders.

Other pickets were set up at busy intersections throughout the city and thousands of buttons that read, “I support” were also distributed (see offsite photos of Jewel Mazique leading pickets at 14th & NY Ave. and the protest march in the Afro-American newspaper archives. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to May 15 1943, pages 1 & 13).

The wartime “March on Washington,” led by an Elks band, was held May 7th beginning at 10th & U St. NW and ending at Franklin Park (14th & I St NW).  Estimates of the crowd ranged from 800 by police to 3,500 by the Afro-American newspaper.

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)

Marching for hiring African American streetcar & bus operators, May 7, 1943. Photo by Paul Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

Marchers heard Rep. Vito Marcantonio (ALP-NY) declare, “If colored people…can drive tanks right into the heart of battle in Tunisia, they can drive streetcars and buses here.”  On Sunday, May 9 over 100 black and white ministers at congregations across the city condemned the company’s hiring policies in their sermons.

Although they didn’t know it, the decision to rely solely on pressuring the federal government would prove to be flawed.

Fair Employment Commission Stalls

The FEPC postponed the May 18 hearing after a challenge was made to its jurisdiction over Capital Transit. In July the full FEPC voted to tell the company that they “expected affirmative action” to end discrimination and would call a public hearing August 9 if the company did not comply. The company continued to stall while the FEPC tried to negotiate.

In January 1944, the company discovered it had hired an African American woman, Sarah Grayson of 2231 Ontario Road NW. It promptly fired her, despite her five months of unblemished service (See offsite photo of Grayson in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 5, 1944, page 11).

“I made no effort to conceal my racial identity. The question just never came up,” Grayson said, according to the Afro-American.

Grayson found it amusing that her co-workers would make disparaging remarks about African Americans while trying to talk her into a date. She was discovered when a neighbor applied for a job at the company and was turned down. According to the Afro newspaper, the neighbor allegedly told the company, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you.”

Hopes were raised in 1944 by two events, the integration of operators at the Philadelphia transit system at gunpoint by the federal government and the appointment of Houston to the federal FEPC.

Under orders by the FEPC, the Philadelphia Transportation Company began promoting African Americans to operators. In August 1944, white operators staged a seven-day wildcat strike protesting the promotions. Philadelphia contained vital defense plants and the federal government seized the company, ordered strikers back to work and threatened to strip any men refusing of the draft deferments and job availability certificates for the duration of WW II and backed it up with the US Army.

The Capital Transit management continued to stall—never outright refusing, continuing to “negotiate,” but never implementing any change. Meanwhile, in December 1944, Sims, campaigning against the possibility of African American operators, regained the presidency of the transit union by defeating Bigelow.

President Roosevelt died in April 1945 and vice president Harry Truman became president. As WWII drew to a close, the FEPC would also terminate with the end of the war and a campaign was undertaken to make the FEPC permanent.

(See offsite photo of Marie Richardson picketing for a permanent FEPC in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 2, 1946, page 24).

Houston Quits in Protest of Truman Inaction

Truman refuses to Act on Capital Transit; Houston Resigns from FEPC: 1945 (Photo 20)

Charles Hamilton Houston quits FEPC & blasts Truman for halting Capital Transit desegregation.  Dec. 8, 1945 Chicago Defender.

When Capital Transit workers staged wildcat strikes twice in 1945 over wage disputes, an opportunity presented itself to enforce the FEPC order.  Truman ordered the seizure of the company November 21 to enforce arbitration of the wage issue.  Houston drafted a directive to enforce the FEPC order to integrate the company while it was under federal control, but Truman countermanded it.

Houston was incredulous and demanded an explanation.  When none was forthcoming, he resigned blasting Truman for maintaining, “…a persistent course of conduct on the part of the Administration to give lip service to the matter of eliminating discrimination in employment on account of race, creed, color or national origin since V-J (Victory in Japan) day, while doing nothing substantial to make the policy effective.”

The company had perhaps understood politics better than the protestors. Truman believed he needed support of southern Democrats and Washington, DC was not Philadelphia.  Despite Truman’s mild support of a permanent FEPC, it was filibustered in the US Senate and died.

Red Scare Decimates Local Leaders

The next blow to Capital Transit integration came with the anti-labor, anti-communist Taft-Harley law in 1947 and the burgeoning “red scare” that began with Truman’s “Federal Employee Loyalty Program” in 1947 and continued through House and Senate hearings on the Communist Party where those named were accused of disloyalty and had their names and addresses published in newspapers.  The McCarren Internal Security Act followed in 1950.  Prosecutions began under the resurrected 1940 Smith Act.

The District of Columbia African American labor leaders and their unions that had been the backbone of the push to integrate Capital Transit were put on the defensive.  The Cafeteria Workers union waged an eleven-week strike against Government Services Incorporated (GSI-a federal government-sponsored corporation  that operated a majority of  federal cafeterias) because GSI refused to bargain with a “red” union.  They survived, but the president of their union, Richard A. Bancroft, resigned instead of signing a Taft-Hartley oath renouncing the Communist Party.

The United Public Workers (formerly United Federal Workers)  union was expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for “red” leadership and ultimately fell apart.  Henry Thomas, president of the Laborer’s Local 74 AFL, turned on his allies and denounced them before Congress in an attempt to keep his leadership of the union.  He was ultimately defeated anyway in the mid 1950s.

Doxey Wilkerson, chair of the transit week of action in 1943, was ostracized and Committee on Jobs for Negros in Public Utilities chairman William S. Johnson, who was also president of Hotel & Restaurant Local 209 AFL, was expelled by the national union  for allegedly being a “red.”

Marie Richardson, another founder of the movement and former secretary of the District National Negro Congress and one of the first African American woman to hold a national office in a labor union (United Federal Workers) was ultimately jailed for over four years—convicted with the help of Thomas’s testimony.  Her crime was lying on a federal application for a clerk’s position.

These casualties were the tip of the iceberg.  The cumulative effect of the anti-labor and anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s on the Capital Transit effort was to rob the movement of its organizers and base.

The broader effect was to decapitate progressive African American leadership among blue-collar workers in the District.  It wasn’t until the black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that new leaders demanding social change began to arise in the workplace.

Effort Limps Along 1948-53

The remaining civil rights movement in the District concentrated on desegregating other facilities including theaters, cafeterias, parks and schools relegating the Capital Transit issue to the back burner.

However, the NAACP, Americans for Democratic Action, a now marginalized Communist Party and other activists continued to raise the issue at Capital Transit fare increase hearings before the District Public Utilities Commission from 1948-53. The Washington Afro-American also kept the issue alive through its columns and news stories.

The transit management continued to sing the same song that white workers would strike or quit and service disruptions would occur.

Background Conditions Changing for Company & Union

In 1949, financier Louis Wolfson bought Capital transit from the North American Co. that had resisted hiring black operators.  The sale was forced by a Supreme Court decision because North American also owned the Potomac Electric Power Company.

Transit Union Head Confronts Change: 1954 (Photo 21)

Walter Bierwagen (front row with dark suit holding gavel), president of the transit union, shown in an undated photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

In 1950, Walter J. Bierwagen, one of the leaders of the 1945 wildcat strikes, defeated Sims for president of the local transit union. Bierwagen was not a radical, but campaigned to unify the union.  In 1951, he led a three-day strike that secured seniority rights during work reductions for maintenance employees.

In doing so, he earned the support of African American union members who were often laid-off in the post WWII period when transit was contracting despite having more seniority than white co-workers, according to contemporary union accounts.

And the tide was beginning to turn in the District on civil rights.

In 1953, the Baltimore Transit Company 30 miles north of Washington, hired its first African American operators.

In 1953, Washington, DC downtown movie theaters and restaurants began desegregating and parks and recreation facilities followed in 1954.

On May 17, 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled that the District’s segregated schools were unconstitutional in the Bowling vs. Sharpe decision. The Court handed it down on the same day as the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

The Die Was Now Cast

The Capital Transit case had become an embarrassment to leading liberals. Members of the Senate District Subcommittee, Senators Wayne Morse (I-OR), J. Glenn Beall (R-MD) and Frederick Payne (R-ME), lashed out at the Capital Transit Company and the union at a September 1954 hearing.

“It is intolerable that the largest transit company operating in the Nation’s Capital, which carries thousands of Negroes daily on its runs should refuse to hire Negro platform workers,” a committee report declared.

The Afro-American newspaper conducted a survey of white operators and found only two out of 60 polled opposed hiring African Americans.

The Public Utilities Commission hosted a series of talks between the company, the union, the Urban League and representatives of the President’s Commission on Contracts to resolve the issue.

Bierwagen was now at the crossroads. Up until this point, he had taken the position that the union had nothing to do with hiring and accepted into its ranks anyone that the company hired. He testified on several occasions that while the union would oppose any type of job action, he expected the men would react.

His hands-off stance did not sit well with his African American supporters in the union. Bierwagen also faced what he likely considered bigger problems than the hiring of black operators.

The Capital Transit owner, Louis Wolfson, had bought the company in 1949 for $2 million and then quickly paid out $3 million in dividends to himself. Service was declining and Wolfson was claiming the company was broke and demanding fare increases from the Public Utilities Commission. Facing these conditions, Bierwagen’s union had a labor contract that was expiring in July 1955.

Public opinion was solidly against Wolfson, but without a resolution of the African American operator issue, the public could turn against the union.

Union Votes in Favor of Integration

Union Member John Bryan Describes Desegregation Decision: 1954-55 (Photo 22)

Union member John Bryan shown in 1949 with Georgia Ave./7th St. streetcar. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

John Bryan, a union ally of Bierwagen’s, said in a 2007 interview that Bierwagen agreed during the Public Utilities Commission meetings to get union support for integration and the management in turn agreed to promote African American maintenance workers to streetcar and bus operator positions before hiring off the street.

At the December 1954 union executive board meeting, “Bierwagen got a 5-3 vote” in favor on the executive board and had a voice vote at the next union meeting [January 4, 1955], according to Bryan. “A lot of fellows said that the nays had it, but Bierwagen banged the gavel and ruled the vote was in favor,” Bryan added.

On January 13, 1955 an agreement was announced that Capital Transit would initially promote African American applicants from within the maintenance department and the company would also begin to hire new operators from the street. Victor Daly from the US Labor Department was to review and select the first applicants from within the company. Bierwagen pledged the full cooperation of the union.

By March 1955 Robert S. Pettigrew was operating a bus and James Richard Russell was operating a streetcar. There were no work stoppages.

The struggle didn’t end there as District activist Julius Hobson threatened a bus boycott to increase African American hiring in 1962. There were long battles to integrate departments and diversify management within the company. However, the first Metrorail operator in 1976 was an African American, William “Pop” Saunders. In 1983 the union elected its first African American president, James M. Thomas Jr. The same year Carmen Turner, an African American woman, was selected Acting General Manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, often called Metro), a successor company to Capital Transit.

Robert Pettigrew: First African American Bus Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 24)

Robert Pettigrew (2nd row with glasses), the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a bus operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

James Russell: First African American Streetcar Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 25)

James Russell, the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a streetcar operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

Additional images can be seen in the Flickr set “Fighting Capital Transit Racism: 1941-55”.

Notes: Most of the material from which this history is derived is from public sources such as the Washington Afro-American, Washington Post, Washington Star and other newspapers. Other material was gathered Congressional hearing documents. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 also made material available.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by e-mail at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

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