Transit Career Stories

Elevating Insights – ATU Local 689 Executive Board Member and Former WMATA Elevator/Escalator Journeyworker Leah Anderson

Growing up in Washington D.C., Leah Anderson knew she wanted to be an electrical engineer when she first attended weekend and summer classes in electronics at the University of the District of Columbia. She pursued her love of electronics in trade school, and she started working at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, Washington, D.C.) as an elevator/escalator mechanic right after graduation. She has been with the agency and an active member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 since 2000.

1. What initially drew you into working as an elevator/escalator tech?

I knew as a child that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. That was always my passion. UDC used to have a program called Saturday Academy, and that’s where I gained my interest in electronics and components and circuit building. I did that for years­, every summer and on Saturdays. I always loved to work with my hands. I loved puzzles, and I always had a passion just to take things apart. That was a challenge for me. If I could take it apart, I knew I could put it back together.

2. How would you describe your career path?

I came into the elevator escalator program at the age of 19, and I started out as a mechanic. [At the time, in 2000, Metro lowered its age limit for hiring]. Probably a few months or maybe the next year after I got hired was when my classification, elevator and escalator, started their technical skills program. I moved up through the ranks to become a journeyman. I was really curious about escalators. My first five years, I did nothing but elevators. I felt like anybody that’s coming in as a trainee or entry-level should be able to be exposed to every piece of equipment that we had.

I’ve been with Metro for 23 and a half years. I’ve been a lead mechanic, or journeyperson, for the better part of my years. I’ve been working with the apprenticeship council for probably the last six to eight years, and now I’m full-time with the union. I started out as a shop steward for elevator and escalator for three years. After that, I became Executive Board Shop Steward for track maintenance, plant maintenance, and elevator escalator. Now I’m Assistant Business Agent for those departments.

3. What’s different about the work being done in the elevator/escalator craft in 2024 compared to 2004?

I would just say modern technology because the equipment is more user-friendly now. You don’t have to do as much troubleshooting because we have controllers. They’ll basically tell you what the problem is. When I started you had to grab a print and figure it out. At least on the escalators, the parts are a lot lighter than they were back then. The average step, when I got hired, was probably 85 pounds. Now the average step is 35 or 40 pounds. So that’s a tremendous difference, especially when you think about having to take out 300 of them. The work is a lot more user-friendly, mentally and physically. That is definitely a plus that I’ve seen over the 23 years of my career.

Leah Anderson shares her thoughts on her work

4. How did you get involved with your work in the union?

I’ll never forget, when I was fairly new to the company, I’d probably been here about two to three years. It was a station manager [who] would tell me every morning: “I want you to do something. I need you to get involved in this union. You’re going to be here for a while.” I just was like, Okay, I’ll bring my kids to union meetings in a heartbeat. [Later on,] we had another shop steward that was over my department. We were pretty good friends. We worked together a lot. When we were out in the field, we were partners. We had got approved because our group had grown, so we were able to have two shop stewards. We planned to run together, but because we both didn’t know the rules, it kind of backfired. By us inadvertently having to run against each other, I wound up beating him, and then that was history. I’ve been the shop steward ever since then. The people in my office, [said], “You have a voice. You want to help everybody. We want to put you on the Executive Board, because we know you’re going to help make good decisions, and you’re going to have everybody’s interests in mind. You are the person that looks at the whole picture, not just the piece.”

5. Talk a bit about your experience as a woman in the transit trades. What advice and information would you give other women considering this career?

My field is predominantly male, and at the time, it was four of us that were all hired from the same trade school – four women that were hired. We were the first women to be hired into elevator/escalator for Metro, so that was that was great, and not to mention, I was three months pregnant when I got hired. My department really took care of me, and they were excited because they were like wow, we’ve never had a baby – like it was their baby too. So, my son was their baby. It was interesting the way they took care of me. They really made a lot of accommodations for me that they probably didn’t have to do.

Just hang in there, find your support system, make sure you communicate with your co-workers, or even if you have to get a therapist or something, you have to be able to let some of that steam off. Most of us try to be superwomen because we are. Just hang in there and make sure that you take care of yourself first, because you can’t take care of anybody else if you don’t if you don’t take care of yourself.

The struggles, I would say, early on, when I first got hired, it was just like, how would the men perceive me in this job? I had a few that really didn’t care to care. I wouldn’t say that they didn’t like me, but you could tell even though they never maybe said it. [They would think], you’re a woman. You can’t do this. But for me, that’s a challenge, because now I’m going to be better than you. I always tell people, not to toot my own horn, but if you have to think of the top five mechanics, I’m in there. I’m probably the best female.

6. What are some particular highlights you want to share with people about your career journey?

One of my most memorable things was just getting hired. At the time, like I said before, I was 19 years old, and I had been in the trade school. All of the jobs that were coming were in my field, but I just didn’t qualify for them, so Metro was the godsend. I think when most people think of Metro, they just think of the bus drivers and the trains, but there’s at least one position for any job you could think of here at Metro. It opened my eyes to what Metro actually offered outside of driving a bus or being a train operator.

The knowledge is definitely a benefit. Of course, the money and the health benefits. Metro has been very good to me. It’s allowed me to pursue a lot in my career. I’m raising two kids and have been able to help put one through college and one should be on the way in the next few years. Those benefits are amazing.

I do a lot of the orientations for our new hires. I tell them, if you aren’t messing something up, you’re not learning, because that’s how I learned from a lot of my mistakes. I know if I messed up or something, it’s not going to get me again, because I learned from it. I always tell people, don’t be afraid to fail or mess up or make a mistake, because that’s what makes you better.

When I decided to take on the [union] Executive Board spot, [I was worried I was] going to be bored, because I never really considered myself to be an office person. I still don’t, but because I enjoy a challenge, I always find ways to challenge myself here. And because I’m a fixer, even though I’m not physically fixing, I’m able to help assist people with their issues and their problems.

This interview has been edited and adapted from a longer conversation with Leah Anderson.