Walter Bierwagen
Walter Bierwagen was a leader of the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway and Motorcoach Employees of America Division 689 from the 1940s into the 1970s at a time when the union represented employees at the Capital Transit, D.C. Transit and later the Washington Metro system.

The union today is known as Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and represents employees at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, D.C. Streetcar, some paratransit operations, Alexandria DASH bus service and the WMATA contracted-out Cinder Bed Road garage.

Bierwagen first gained prominence in the union when he was elected to the negotiating committee that tried to reach a resolution during the 1945 wildcat strikes seeking higher wages after the end of World War II.

In 1950 he defeated long-time union president William Simms, a staunch opponent of integration, with the help of black maintenance employees.

In 1951, he led the union’s first strike since 1917—winning gains after a three-days on the street. The 1951 strike established “bumping rights” for maintenance employees in the event of layoffs and solved the issue of favoritism.

At the time, transit service was being reduced as the automobile became affordable for many people resulting in layoffs of maintenance employees at the Capital Transit Co. White mechanics had often transferred to bus mechanic jobs while black track workers were laid-off without recourse.

Jim Crow laws in the city began to crumble in the early 1950s—first through pickets and boycotts of Jim Crow eateries and then the 1953 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the District of Columbia so-called “lost laws” from 1872 and 1873 that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations.

The following year the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in D.C. public schools after another long battle that involved pickets, a boycott of some schools and many rallies and court cases.

After the school decision, Bierwagen reached an agreement with the company in late 1954 that black bus and streetcar operators would be hired first out of the ranks of maintenance employees, ending another long fight to end discrimination in the city by integrating the operator ranks.

The agreement was ratified by the union in early 1955 and the first black operators quickly followed.

Bierwagen probably sensed that an epic battle with the company was coming and sought to end the divisive issue that pitted the white operators against the most of the rest of the city. In doing so, he laid the basis for greater public support for the July strike that would paralyze the city for two months.

In 1949, financier Louis Wolfson bought the debt-free transit company and immediately began selling off assets and taking out loans and then paying him and two other investors huge dividends while claiming that he needed higher and higher fare increases.

When the 1955 contract expired between the union and the company, Bierwagen called a strike. Wolfson said there was no money and Bierwagen in turn said that transit workers had worth and needs regardless of the company’s financial position.

The strike lasted two months and nearly resulted in a public takeover at that time of the transit system. Instead, Congress revoked Wolfson’s franchise and ordered him to sell the company within one-year.

Bierwagen obtained wage increases and vacation, holiday and pension improvements while agreeing to binding arbitration for future contracts instead of strikes.

Bierwagen would later lead the union into a partnership with the Group Health Association, building a facility in Prince George’s County, and providing preventive care to union members that had previously been covered only by hospitalization.

He was elected to vice president of the national transit union and played a key role in legislation to protect transit worker collective bargaining rights when private companies were taken over by the public.

It was Walter Bierwagen who was primarily responsible for the collective bargaining and binding arbitration language in the compact between Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the federal government that created Metro.

Throughout his tenure as a union leader, he was responsible for obtaining significant wage increases, establishing the pension and health and welfare plans, expansion of seniority rights, extending the eight-hour guarantee to all employees and other benefits.
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