D.C. transit union president George Davis: 1978
George R. Davis, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, is shown July 28, 1978 after a 7-day wildcat strike by rank-and-file D.C. Metro workers demanding that cost-of-living payments continue while their labor contract was being arbitrated.
The workers pointed to a clause in their labor agreement that said the expiring contract provisions would remain “undisturbed” during arbitration proceedings.
Davis initially refused to arbitrate the issue and ruled a strike motion out of order before adjourning a union meeting where the issue came up. Members then organized and staged a wildcat strike and refused Davis’s orders to return to work.
A federal judge ordered the disputed money put in escrow and an expedited arbitration of the issue. On August 3, 1978 neutral arbitrator Richard Bloch issued an opinion finding that Metro’s failure to pay was a “substantial disturbance of existing conditions, and therefore a contract violation.”
It was an embarrassment for Davis and a victory for the workers.
During his tenure in office as president from 1974-80, he practiced what is commonly called business unionism where he processed grievances and negotiated and administrated contracts.
He became president during a decade-long national strike wave and during a time when black workers became a majority of the workers at Metro. It was also on the heels of the social turmoil of the 1960s.
Early in his tenure, he called a 1974 strike against Metro, holding that the cost of living clause that paid workers every three months the same percentage increase as the U.S. Labor Department’s consumer price index could not be reduced and was not subject to arbitration.
A federal judge intervened and ordered arbitration of the issue, but instructed the arbitrator to give “great weight” to the union’s position. The COLA clause was retained at that time.
Davis also led a safety check in November 1975 that sidelined 40 percent of the bus service for a day over the issues of excessive discipline and unsafe equipment. The disruption of service resulted in a less harsh disciplinary code.
However he was seen by the rank and file as a timid leader unresponsive to their concerns. When an operator was raped and workers staged a wildcat strike in May 1978, Davis was on the sidelines.
He later attempted to take credit for the measures that were agreed to end the walkout, further angering the members.
During a time of intense political attacks on the union by local elected leaders, Davis rarely responded publicly and failed to capitalize on an opportunity to organize bus operations in the start-up Montgomery County Ride On service in 1977.
He was blamed by the members for the introduction of part-time work, although it was ordered by an arbitrator in 1978.
His administration was criticized for its bookkeeping practices where there were not receipts and vouchers for all expenditures. By his own admission, he rarely made visits to members at worksites.
Davis’s tenure came to an end in an election that was postponed by the court until January 1980.
Charles Boswell, a rank-and-file bus operator with no previous union experience prevailed over Davis by a better than 2-1 margin.
During his six year tenure, he kept the cost-of-living clause in the contract during a period of high inflation, despite relentless attacks from area political leaders.
He also negotiated an agreement with Metro that provided that Local 689 would be the sole bargaining representative for blue collar Metrorail employees and obtained an agreement that disabled workers could fill some of the newly created station attendant (later called manager) jobs.
While he was a dedicated trade unionist, his accomplishments were tarnished by his distance from the membership. He failed to lead direct action against WMATA despite his early success using the strike and a safety check to obtain results.
He didn’t understand or engage in political activity, which cost the local dearly in the coming years and he did not undertake an opportunity to organize the Ride On system that would grow to 500 buses and 1,500 workers and set an example for other suburban jurisdictions and the District of Columbia to set up their own bus systems.
He retired bitter and feeling betrayed by those who served with him, but it was his own poor decision-making that was his undoing.
For a blog post on the turmoil in the D.C. transit union from 1974-80, see washingtonareaspark.com/2020/03/16/george-davis-and-the-t...
For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsjC75vur
The photographer is unknown. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.