What’s at stake at BART?

July 11, 2013

Union workers at BART ended a four-day strike while negotiations continued--but as Todd Chretien reports, neither side is giving in, setting the stage for another showdown.

AFTER A four-day strike last week, 2,400 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555 agreed to return to work for 30 days under the terms of their old contract. But management is refusing to bargain seriously, and the two sides remain far from a settlement.

After four years of an effective pay freeze, work rule concessions and givebacks on health care and pensions, BART workers are saying "enough is enough"--and could resume their strike on August 4.

On the other side, the regionally elected BART Board of Directors has drawn a line in the sand, aiming to cripple union strength and pave the way for future privatization schemes.

The outcome of this fight will go a long ways toward setting the terms for all workers in the Bay Area for the coming year. As muckraking journalist Tim Redmond explains:

BART's hired gun--the guy who is taking point on the contract negotiation--works for a company that has a history of moving to privatize public transit. Thomas Hock works for Veolia Transport, a French company that not only has worked to undermine funding of public transit in Congress, but has a bad record of taking over formerly public bus systems and cutting service to make a profit.

BART workers from SEIU and ATU on the picket lines
BART workers from SEIU and ATU on the picket lines (Steve Rhodes)

While plans to privatize BART will face stiff resistance, there's no room for complacency. Organized labor has been facing tough times. For example, the strongest union on the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the docks, was recently forced to accept dangerous concessions at a new grain terminal in Longview, Wash., after a campaign of intimidation by the bosses.

Meanwhile, BART management feels confident from a widespread campaign of vilification against public-sector workers, recently written into law in California by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic majority in the state legislature when they pushed through a cut in state workers' pensions.

Besides, the BART board doesn't just think like the 1 Percent. They are the 1 Percent.

As SEIU 1021 Executive Director Pete Castelli pointed out in a statement issued by the union, "BART management has raised hypocrisy to a whole new level. Management has spent taxpayer money on themselves like they were Wall Street bankers. While BART General Manager Grace Crunican pays herself $320,000 a year, she refuses to adjust employee compensation to simply keep up with the cost of living here in the Bay Area."

This is nothing new for BART. Its previous general manager, Dorothy Dugger, managed to rake in $330,000 from a golden parachute retirement swindle, even after she'd been forced out in disgrace.

But none of this prevented the San Francisco Chronicle from lining up against the strike. The paper wrote in an editorial, "The public reaction to this week's strike made plain that any future such action will gain no sympathy from the riders and taxpayers who are paying the bills."

While it's tempting to dismiss this anti-union rhetoric, the mainstream press did play a role in weakening public support for the strike by endlessly featuring frustrated commuters on TV and radio and in print.

THERE IS no doubt that BART workers can bring the system to a halt, and it's virtually impossible for management to bring in scabs. BART workers have strong traditions of sticking up for their rights. In 1997, a six-day strike at BART on the heels of the UPS Teamsters strike won a big raise and protected work rules, health care and pensions.

But in 2009, BART management claimed a deficit of some $350 million (largely because of airport extensions catering to tourists and business travelers and mismanagement) and strong-armed the unions into giving up $100 million in concessions.

This time around, BART admits to having a $100 million in reserve, partially based on an increase in ridership from 335,000 to 390,000 per weekday. Yet management still insists that workers must accept concessions.

BART has offered a sub-inflation 8 percent raise over four years, but even that is conditioned on unrealistic growth projections in BART ridership--so the actual wage increase could end up being much lower. Furthermore, BART wants workers to pay more for health care and pensions, eating up a majority of whatever raise workers do get.

In response, SEIU and ATU are demanding a 4.5 percent raise annually, plus a cost of living adjustment of 2.2 percent over four years, as well as smaller co-pays on pension and health care.

After accounting for inflation, this would only get BART workers back to where they started in 1999. It would be a step in the right direction, but still leave most BART workers at or below what a recent study by the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development estimates a family of four needs to live in the Bay Area: $74,341.

TO WIN in the current political climate, BART workers will be stronger if they see their fight as part of a broader struggle to turn the tables on the 1 Percent in the Bay Area.

If they do, they'll have a lot of support. As Castelli points out, "BART management has spent a million dollars of taxpayer money paying consultants to pursue a union-busting strategy based on the tactics of what anti-labor forces have done in the Midwest over the last several years. But we have news for them: the Bay Area will stand up for working people."

And if Bay Area working people stand up for BART workers, it doesn't have to be a one-way street. In fact, a win for BART workers could play an important part in turning the tide of austerity, unemployment and budget cuts that have dominated in California since 2008.

Here's a partial list of Bay Area contracts and campaigns that will be fought out over the coming year:

Education: The Oakland Education Association got out from under an imposed contract and five-year wage freeze by voting to accept a 2.35 percent bonus and 1.5 percent raise for a one-year contract in mid-June. However, that contact was retroactive for the 2012-13 school year and expired on June 30, so the union is right back to negotiations and preparing for a fight in the fall. Castro Valley teachers are confronting concessions demanded by management, and Berkeley teachers are fighting for a real raise in the coming year after successfully bargaining a retroactive 2.5 percent raise for last year.

Some 13,000 University of California graduate students in UAW Local 2865 are preparing for a hard contract fight when classes resume in September--they are hoping to raise their pay from a paltry $15,000 a year, as well as to reduce class sizes and secure basic health care and child care provisions.

Perhaps the biggest education fight of all could come at City College of San Francisco, which accreditation authorities are threatening to close down--which would lock 80,000 students out of classes and potentially wipe out American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 and SEIU Local 1021 chapters in the process.

Health care: The California Nurses Association (CNA) has been locked in contract negotiations with industry giant Sutter Health Care for more than two years and has conducted a series of one- and two-day strikes. Meanwhile, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and CNA have united to demand a fair contract from Children's Hospital in Oakland, and CNA is preparing for a showdown with Kaiser when the contract for nurses expires next summer. AFSCME Local 3299 organized a hugely successful two-day strike in May against the University of California's lucrative medical centers--and is preparing for more actions in the fall.

Transportation: Nonunion workers at Oakland International Airport are preparing a one-day strike on July 14 with the support of UNITE HERE Local 2850 to protest unfair labor practices. Dockworkers in the ILWU took action on July 9 to protest attacks on their health care, and the port bosses aim to win significant concessions in the coast-wide master contract next year. ATU Local 192 members at AC Transit, which provides bus service to over 174,000 people each day in the East Bay, are currently in contract talks.

Government workers: Oakland city workers from SEIU Local 1021 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 struck alongside BART workers on July 1, forcing city negotiators back to the table. They are demanding a significant raise after accepting $150 million in wage cuts over the last five year. Hayward city workers in SEIU Local 1021 are in the midst of a tough fight and may follow the example of their coworkers from Oakland if management refuses to offer them a fair contract.

On top of all of this, the OUR Walmart campaign has garnered significant support from Bay Area labor and community groups. Management's recent firing of three workers for their organizing work--Dominic Ware, Raymond Bravo and Louis Callahan--led to actions on July 7 at four stores in Richmond, San Leandro and Fremont.

THE RECESSION has ended for the bosses, and state and city agencies are flush with cash. In fact, there is a new tech and real estate boom in parts of the Bay Area, with the median price of a house in San Francisco recently passing the $1 million mark.

Yet public- and private-sector employers are dead-set against sharing the wealth--and aim to hold the line and keep the cutbacks coming for workers.

But now that government budget deficits can no longer be held over workers' heads to demand concessions, unions are rightfully taking a more aggressive stance in negotiations--and backing up the tough talk with action.

As AFSCME Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger said after her union's two-day strike in May: "Thousands of members of 3299 hit the picket lines for two days this week to fight for our patients and our families. And it's what we do every other day of the year when we go into work--fight for our patients and families. The strike showed just how serious the need is to fix the problems in UC's hospitals, and we proved to ourselves that we have what it takes to do it."

If workers from different unions can "prove" to themselves that there is power in solidarity, then we might just be looking at the beginning of the end of the bosses' one-sided class war in the Bay.

At the same time, unions are looking beyond the specific issues in their contracts.

Over the last year, SEIU Local 1021, ILWU Local 10, the Oakland Education Association, and the San Francisco and Alameda Central Labor Councils all voted to support the Justice for Alan Blueford campaign (JAB) established after Alan was murdered in May 2012 by Oakland Police. The campaign has pressed for the firing of officer Miguel Masso and to hold the department brass and city politicians accountable.

In a show of mutual support, many members of JAB helped SEIU Local 1021 shut down the Oakland port during a one-day strike in November of last year, and Jeralynn and Adam Blueford, Alan's parents, joined 300 SEIU Local 1021 members at a packed city council meeting in June to jointly demand justice for their son and a raise for city workers.

This goes to show the potential power in a broad solidarity campaign across different unions, and between unions and community organizations and nonunion workers.

If their members go back to the picket lines in August, SEIU and ATU have pledged to organize daily actions to build community support and expose BART management's hypocrisy. This is an excellent step, but it will be crucial to make sure at least some of those actions are planned out well in advance to maximize turnout from beyond ATU and SEIU members--in order to show the breadth of solidarity with BART workers.

On August 4, BART unions should either celebrate a clear victory at the bargaining table--or hit the picket lines again, this time with a mobilized community behind them.

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