The high stakes at BART

October 21, 2013

Jeffrey Harland, David McCarthy and Alex Schmaus report on a critical labor battle, as BART workers take to the picket lines against concessions for a second time.

FACING A relentless management that has refused for months to address their concerns about safety procedures and work rule changes, some 2,400 union workers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system went on strike for a second time on October 18.

The seriousness of those concerns was tragically emphasized the next day when a BART train hit and killed two maintenance workers while they were inspecting a dip in the tracks.

One of the two people killed was a member of AFSCME Local 3993, the smallest of the three unions at BART, which represents supervisory and professional employees. Members of this union aren't on strike, but the local has recommended that they respect the picket lines of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555. The AFSCME member who was killed had reported to work; the other employee was a contractor.

"I don't have exact particulars, but we do know that BART has been running trains on their own," said Des Patten, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1021. "We understand they are not taking passengers, just taking trains up and down the track to keep the tracks worn...We were afraid they would try and operate and take passengers. We were worried about safety because of the amount of training required to be an operator, which is about 15 weeks. A lot of people don't make it through training because they can't handle the stress."

Supporters rally with BART workers on the first day of the strike
Supporters rally with BART workers on the first day of the strike (Steve Rhodes)

THE DEATHS underlined the very high stakes in the battle at BART, the fifth-largest rapid transit system in the U.S., used by roughly 400,000 passengers every day.

The BART workers went on strike at the start of July after management offered union members--who have put up with a pay freeze since their last contract was negotiated--a wage increase that wouldn't keep up with the cost of living in the Bay Area, much less make up for lost ground. After four days on the picket line, the two striking unions agreed to return to work for 30 days under the terms of the old contract while bargaining resumed.

True to form, BART bosses stonewalled in the following month of talks, and union members prepared to walk off the job again in August. But California Gov. Jerry Brown intervened to impose a 60-day "cooling-off period." This ended in mid-October.

During those two months, union negotiators finally got some movement from management on compensation and benefits proposals. The details have not been made public yet, but according to reports, the two sides agreed on a 12 percent raise over four years, a new contribution from workers of 4 percent of pay toward their pension, and a 9.5 percent increase in workers' contributions toward their health insurance.

This is only a small hike from management's previous wage offer, while workers will spend more for pensions and health care--and all the while, BART is projecting a $125 million annual surplus in its operating budget over the next decade.

But BART officials apparently weren't satisfied. According to ATU Local 1555 President Antonette Bryant, management had a last-minute "poison pill" to kill the emerging deal: unprecedented changes in work rules, already a sore subject for union members.

For example, BART officials want the power to change workers' schedules without consulting the union, and they are demanding to curb procedures for workers to challenge discrimination or harassment by managers. Union officials say they offered to settle the unresolved issues through binding arbitration--and take the risk they might lose hard-won rights--but management rejected that offer, leading to another walkout.

TO WIN this struggle, unions need to convince the public that the BART strike isn't only about workers getting a fair deal--which they deserve--but also about Bay Area residents getting a safe public transit system.

This is especially important after management has spent the last few months since before the first walkout vilifying BART workers in the local media--portraying them as "overpaid" and "underworked." One article even compared getting a job at BART to getting into Harvard University.

Contrary to the baying of the anti­union media, the average BART utility and service worker takes home around $52,000 a year, while train operators get around $62,000 plus benefits. "They've got me down as making $160,000, and that's not true," said SEIU Local 1021 member Avery Turner.

Getting by in the high-priced Bay Area is difficult--one estimate puts a living-wage income for a family of four at $72,000 a year. Even with a union job, BART workers struggle to get to by. But BART managers don't--they routinely enjoy six-figure salaries, along cheaper health care costs and more generous benefits.

Hundreds of thousands of people rely on BART to travel to work in the Bay Area, with few other realistic transportation options. So it's understandable that many people are frustrated by the strike.

The anti-union media have exploited this to heap abuse on striking workers. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune tried to rally public opposition to the walkout--the Chronicle's opinion editor John Diaz has even called for a ban on transit strikes.

The issues of the strike need to be made clear. This isn't about overpaid BART workers protecting their jobs with meaningless regulations. It is about ensuring safe, accessible public transportation in the Bay Area--and defending the right to a decent blue-collar job in an increasingly gentrified region.

The death of the two BART employees makes it crystal clear that management doesn't care about safety, as unions have charged all along--and that it is recklessly endangering the public with its union-busting tactics.

But the only way the unions will be able to punch through the mainstream media's pro-management coverage is by changing their tactics.

The unions know they can stop the trains by walking off the job--they are organizing only small picket lines and occasional rallies. But this isn't enough.

Some local Democratic Party officials have expressed sympathy for the BART workers, but they should put their money where their mouth is and demand the firing of BART General Manager Grace Crunican and her hired gun consultant Thomas Hock--both of whom are collecting annual salaries near $400,000 for attacking unions.

But no one should trust the Democrats to be consistent allies. After all, Jerry Brown imposed the 60-day "cooling-off period," and Democratic state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier from Concord isn't alone in saying he is "looking into legislation that could prevent future strikes."

What's needed now is an escalation of the strike. The San Francisco and Alameda Central Labor Councils should call for mass demonstrations in solidarity with BART workers. Workers for Alameda County Transit, who have already rejected two lousy contracts and are authorized to strike, could link their battle to the BART strike and turn up the heat on both managements.

Above all, union workers and their supporters need to organize the riding public--including students, other union members and sympathetic community members--to demand that BART management return to negotiations, drop their deadly demands for work rule changes, and agree to a decent contract.

At a minimum, BART workers have to hold the line on critical work rule changes and get back some of the wage concessions they gave up during the depths of the Great Recession. Anything less will give the elite a boost in labor battles around the Bay Area. On the other hand, a victory for BART workers will be a win for all working-class people.

Todd Chretien contributed to this article.

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