Union head and attorneys confer during arbitration: 1976
Isadore Gromfine (right) and Winfield Homer (center), two of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689’s attorneys, confer with union president George Davis in 1976 during an arbitration of a pay dispute.
The issue was brought before arbitrator Harry Platt who had written a contract arbitration award for the union and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, or Metro) earlier in the year. Platt would have to rule on his intentions in a dispute over pay contained in his earlier award.
The Platt contract arbitration award would lead in part to a 1978 wildcat strike.
At issue was a a full percentage cost of living clause that Platt ruled the workers could keep in a time of high inflation.
However, two of the quarterly payments came due during the period between the expiration of the contract on April 30th and the date of the award of the new labor agreement.
There was language in the contract that said all conditions in the expiring contract "shall remain undisturbed" during the arbitration, but WMATA did not pay either of the COLA raises.
The union did not seek to enforce the contract language with Davis saying it would be settled in the main contract arbitration.
Platt wrote in his contract award that WMATA didn't have to pay the July payment, but did have to pay the October issue.
Many in the union membership were outraged believing Davis had failed to fight for them and staffed a wildcat strike in 1978 over the issue when WMATA failed to pay the COLA again.
This time in 1978 a judge ordered arbitration of the specific issue of COLA payments in the interim before a new contract award and the workers prevailed.
Gromfine and Homer were long-time attorneys for the union and their firm still represents ATU Local 689 as of 2020.
During his six-year tenure (1974-80), 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.
In his campaign for president in 1973, he added three black men to his ticket for the top five offices of the union. Davis’s entire slate won with Rodney Richmond become the first black elected full-time officer of the local union.
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.
Two wildcat strikes organized by the rank-and-file took place during his tenure when members felt that Davis couldn’t effectively lead the fight for their interests. He rarely ventured outside the union offices at a time when hundreds of new members were being hired. Many simply didn’t know him.
He didn’t understand or engage in sustained 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/p/2iE567k
The photographer is unknown. The image was printed in an edition of the Local 689 News in 1978.