Rodney Richmond, first black full-time ATU 689 officer: 1974
Rodney Richmond, shown in a photograph circa 1974, became the first black full-time officer of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 in Washington, D.C. when he was elected to financial secretary-treasurer in December 1973.
The union represented the vast majority of employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, often called Metro) that had recently acquired four private bus companies and was operating exclusively bus service prior to the Metrorail system inaugurating service in 1976.
Richmond ran on a ticket with George Davis for president, Robert Delaney for Recording Secretary, Harvey Lee for first vice president and James Buckner for second vice president, the latter two also being black—the first fully integrated ticket for the top offices of the union.
Davis had been secretary-treasurer under the man he was challenging for the presidency, George Apperson, so Richmond was running for an open seat. Richmond had previously served as second vice president, replacing the first black officer--James Shipman--who resigned.
Davis campaigned agains the incumbent president George Apperson for "spending too much time on Capitol Hill" and neglecting Local 689 business. The Davis-Richmond team swept the top offices.
Richmond tied his fate closely to Davis and the pair seemed to get off on a good start, leading a strike in 1974 that was declared illegal and the union fined, but not before the judge ordered arbitration and directed the arbitrator to give “great weight” to the union’s position on a disputed cost-of-living clause.
Arbitration proved unnecessary after the judge’s direction and Metro and union negotiated an agreement that included the disputed COLA clause.
In November 1975, Metro also imposed a new, harsher disciplinary policy that the union administration objected to.
The aging buses Metro acquired were badly in need of major maintenance and Davis led a work-to-the rule safety check and halted any buses leaving the garages that lacked horns, turn signals, speedometers, brake lights and other safety features, causing about one-third of the service to be cut and forced delays on the other two-thirds.
The direct action forced Metro to make some minor repairs and modify their dictionary policy.
Davis and Richmond negotiated a supplemental rail agreement in 1975 that assured Local 689 of blue collar rail representation and provided that disabled employees could fill station attendant (later manager) positions under certain circumstances whereas previously they simply terminated or forced to retire on disability, if eligible.
Davis and Richmond were re-elected without opposition in 1976.
However things had begun to turn for the pair that year with their failure to wage a fight around the new Montgomery County Ride On service that was replacing Metrobus routes or to organize the Ride On workers once the service became operational.
They failed to arbitrate the issue of COLA payments in July 1976 due under a rollover provision in the contract that said all terms of the contract would remain “undisturbed” while the contract was being arbitrated.
While the cost of living clause was retained in arbitration that year, the arbitrator ruled that Metro did not have to make one of the payments that came due during the arbitration process. Davis and Richmond were blamed for lost payment.
In May 1978 a woman operator was raped and bus operators staged a one-day wildcat strike protesting the lack of security on the buses. The union leadership was seen as playing no role in the strike or subsequent gains made.
Police patrols were increased, radios on the buses made operational, a “panic button” to summon police was activated and a plexiglass shield was placed behind the driver. When the union leadership attempted to take credit for the changes, many rank-and-file were offended.
Shortly afterward in July 1978, the contract was again in arbitration and Metro again failed to pay the COLA that was due in July.
This time workers staged a seven day wildcat strike that resulted in a judge ordering the disputed money put in escrow and expedited arbitration of the issue—a clear indication from the judge favoring the workers position.
Within days after the strike’s end, the expedited arbitration was held and a ruling issued that WMATA must pay the disputed COLA money—vindicating the workers and embarrassing Davis and Richmond.
Dozens of workers were disciplined by Metro for strike activities, including nine who were fired. While many had discipline modified in the grievance procedure, including reinstatement after lengthy suspensions for those who were fired, workers blamed Davis and Richmond for not fighting the issue of the COLA payment and thereby spurring an illegal strike.
Later, the main contract arbitration retained the COLA clause, but the arbitrator ordered part-time work without benefits or seniority. Richmond defended the inclusion of part-time in the arbitration award, believing it would forestall Ride On type operations in other jurisdictions. Subsequent events would prove him wrong.
Despite it being an arbitration award, Davis and Richmond were blamed for the introduction of substandard part-time work.
As the 1979 election neared, a rank-and-file committee investigating the union’s finances found that many disbursements had been made without back-up. While no theft of funds was alleged, the report tarnished Richmond just two months out from the election.
A dispute over which candidates for union office were qualified to run postponed the election to January 1980. Richmond lost to a rank-and-file candidate, John A. “Jack” Thomas, who had no previous union experience by a 2-1 margin.
A run-off election was required at that time under the bylaws for offices where no candidate received an absolute majority and a week after Richmond was defeated, Davis lost 2-1 in a runoff election to Charles Boswell, another rank-and-file member with no previous union experience.
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 who became the first black president.
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.
Richmond had a mixed legacy early in his career. The Davis-Richmond leadership integrated the top ranks of the transit union, retained the cost-of-living clause in the union contract during a period of high inflation and insured that the union was the exclusive representative of rail operations and maintenance.
However, Davis’s lackluster response to the introduction of low-wage county-run bus service that supplanted Metrobus, the failure to fight to enforce the rollover clause of the contract concerning the COLA and support for the introduction of part-time work stained their legacy and cost Richmond.
Richmond’s come-back, however, was successful. As an international vice-president he was able to use his experiences in the large Local 689 unit to help smaller locals across the country wage contract fights and organize new workers.
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/aHsmLRWRyd
The photographer is unknown. The image was donated by Craig Simpson