Striking for respect at BART

Stephanie Schwartz reports on the issues facing public employees in the Bay Area.

Bay Area Rapid Transit workers on the picket line during a one-day strike (Steve Rhodes)Bay Area Rapid Transit workers on the picket line during a one-day strike (Steve Rhodes)

TRANSIT WORKERS in the Bay Area walked out of contract negotiations and into the streets on July 1.

They were joined by Oakland city workers who held a one-day unfair labor practices (ULP) strike. Together, the strikers shut down the financial centers of Oakland and San Francisco. Oakland city workers returned to their jobs on July 2, while the BART strike is ongoing.

The 2,400 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers walking the picket line have not had a raise in five years. After claiming a lack of funds during contract negotiations in 2009, BART announced a surplus of $4 million in 2010. BART officials are offering a 2 percent raise this year and 8 percent over the next four years. But this barely keeps up with the cost of living in the Bay Area--and that doesn't even account for the five-year wage freeze.

Additionally, the raise is contingent on factors that go beyond the bargaining table--such as whether ridership increases and whether fewer employees take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. BART is also demanding that workers make increased contributions to pensions and health insurance. BART employees aren't eligible for Social Security, so BART already saves money on not contributing to the Social Security system--and now it wants to transfer pension costs onto workers.

Since 2009, BART has cut operations staff by 8 percent. Meanwhile, workplace injuries and assaults are up 43 percent. In a particularly egregious incident on April 13, an attacker threatening to assassinate Black people assaulted a station agent.

Brian, one of many supporters of the strike who attended a July 1 rally in San Francisco, said the BART workers are standing for a just cause:

[We need] to support a living wage for all workers across the country and to show that workers have value...It's very similar to the financial crisis. It's always blamed on the debtors whenever there are bankruptcies, but there's also predatory lending. The idea that lower-class workers or people who need to borrow money are abusing society is wrong. These are the people who make society work, this is where the real stuff comes from.

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FOR THEIR part, the 2,470 Oakland city workers who went out on July 1 have already given back $122 million in furlough days over the last few years, and now the city is asking for an additional 10 percent cut in take-home pay.

A lunchtime rally at Oscar Grant Plaza and a late afternoon action in San Francisco brought hundreds of Oakland workers and community members together on July 1 to support the strike.

Dozens of organizations and unions participated, including OUR Walmart, Causa Justa/Just Cause, the Justice for Alan Blueford coalition, East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Jobs with Justice, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, UNITE HERE, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, AFSCME Locals 2428 and 444, and the Oakland Education Association.

"We did not want to go on strike," Renee Sykes, vice president of IFPTE Local 21, told the crowd of nearly 400 at the Oakland rally. "We're not interested in permanent cuts. We want a fair contract, and we want it now."

A number of community organizations expressed solidarity with the strike. "We are all in this together," said OUR Walmart leader Dominic Ware. "What we are doing is scary. It's big, bigger than me and you...with all of us standing together. There's no way we can't win."

Ethel Long-Scott of the Women's Economic Agenda Project told the crowd that "the true place to get the money is from Wall Street and the banks...It's our job to link up the struggles and win the justice we deserve."

Even Desley Brooks, a member of the Oakland City Council, pointed to the city and the banks as part of the problem, saying, "There is no reason that the City of Oakland cannot bargain in good faith. I feel sometimes like I'm working for one of those big banks. You know, the kind that make money off your back."

In an interview, Joe, a city worker, spoke about the need for a more sustained strike:

We get 12 furloughs, and each furlough saves them money. One day on strike without pay saves them money, so we should do it longer--for a week--to actually prove a point. Not everyone thinks we should go out longer, but a lot of folks do...The turnout was great. We had almost nobody cross, and over 90 percent showed up to picket lines. People who worked for the city used to be proud, but not anymore with the way they treat us.

Many workers directed their anger at City Administrator Deanna Santana. One worker, S. Alexandra, said:

It's been hard. I've been through bankruptcy. It's been years without a raise or a cost-of-living adjustment. We're out here because you've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything. It's awesome for us all to come out and show support. The city is seeing us out here, and they see we mean what we say. I bring in $12,000 a month in revenue, but how much of that do I see? And Deanna Santana managed to mess up all the money we make.

H. Bowles, a city worker and member of IFTPE Local 21, added:

The city reneged on its promise to bring us back to equity or above. These entities are looking at a new structural reality for workers compensation. They say they are worried about solvency with pensions. Santana has a history in San Jose. She wants to do the same thing, she wants to outsource and nullify contracts.

That's why I think this strike by city workers may be protracted and unprecedented. But it's hard--this one-day strike is mostly symbolic. We don't have the economic leverage that port workers, BART workers or even courthouse workers do.

Chris Finn, ATU Local 1555 recording secretary, spoke about the shared interests of BART workers and riders. "Riders and workers have the same interests," he said. "There is no reason for management to stop the train. Not even the excuse of recession. The workers are seeing how all their battles are connected."

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THE FOCUS shifted to San Francisco at 5 p.m. when nearly 200 people gathered near the Civic Center/UN Plaza BART station to demonstrate their support for the BART strike. The crowd consisted of BART employees, members of other unions, and many activists from various left and community organizations. SEIU had set up information tables and were handing out free water.

The speeches focused on safe working conditions for employees and safe riding conditions for those who use the transit system daily. Several speakers talked about the economic contributions of BART workers, who stand at the heart of the regional economy.

One station agent from Berkeley BART described the many workplace safety issues that she faces on a daily basis. There is at least one suicide every week that BART employees have to handle, she said. She also recounted how one employee was stabbed in the leg with a pair of scissors for no apparent reason, and she described a robbery in which a man held a BART employee at gunpoint, and then locked the worker in a bathroom.

She also explained that least 12 homeless people sleep in her station, and that one man fell asleep inside an elevator shaft late at night--not realizing there was one last train coming in that evening. When a passenger used the elevator, the man was crushed to death.

If these things aren't disturbing enough in themselves, she went on to say that when she and other agents voiced their concerns to their supervisors, a mass e-mail was sent out reprimanding those who spoke out. Supervisors likewise restricted employees from speaking out about the Oscar Grant murder.

The result, she said, is that because BART employees are not allowed to vocalize safety concerns, the public blames the workers for the safety issues--even though it is entirely up to management to make decisions and allocate budget resources that impact safety for workers and riders.

A social worker named Abel Ferreira, who is associated with SEIU, said he was there to show his support for the BART strike:

The operators have a complicated job, and it's a highly skilled job, so why are they paid so little? You have these tech-industry 27-years-olds right out of college working for a start-up making $180,000, and you have the people who get them to work making $70,000...And a lot of the agents are paid far less than that, and you're not hearing the whole story.

Kelly Gemmill and Francois Hughes contributed to this article.