Holding the line through picket lines at BART

October 30, 2013

Todd Chretien reports on the tentative contract agreement at Bay Area Rapid Transit--and asks if the unions could have won more with a more aggressive strategy.

AFTER FOUR days on the picket line, 2,400 workers at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) returned to work October 22 under the terms of a tentative four-year contract agreement.

But before the deal could be reached, two people working for BART were struck and killed by a train operated by a "trainee" who was most likely being prepared for a scab operation.

Final details of the agreement, which will be voted on later this week by members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, weren't available as this article was being written.

The Oakland Tribune reported that BART workers will get a net raise in compensation of 11.7 percent over the four years of the contract, which is substantially improved from the roughly 8 percent that management put on the table at the beginning of negotiations.

The contract was a long time coming. BART workers struck for four days in early July before agreeing to return to work while negotiations continued. They threatened to walk out again in early August, and Gov. Jerry Brown imposed a 60-day cooling-off period. That set up a confrontation on October 10, but the unions agreed to extend talks for another week, before walking out and shutting down the 400,000-passenger-per-day BART system on October 18.

Striking BART workers are joined by supporters for a picket line rally
Striking BART workers are joined by supporters for a picket line rally (Steve Rhodes)

The BART system is run by a locally elected board, which turned over negotiations to a highly paid manager, Grace Crunican, and an anti-union consultant and privatization expert, Thomas Hock. Despite both of them pocketing around $400,000 a year, Crunican and Hock organized a smear campaign against "highly paid" BART workers.

This campaign fueled a scapegoating atmosphere in the mainstream media designed to whip up public outrage against the strikers. San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz even called for a ban on all public transportation strikes in the Bay Area, supposedly in defense of an environmentally "sustainable vision."

Evidently, Diaz and the BART managers don't care if BART workers earn a "sustainable" living. Instead, they vilified a workforce that averages around $65,000 in pay, plus extra for overtime--roughly on par with a public school teacher in the Bay Area with 20 years of experience.

While that might seem like good pay in many parts of the country, according to a recent study, a family of four the Bay Area needs to earn $74,431 to cover "rent, food, health care, child care, transportation and taxes, which soared 18.9 percent in three years."

The worker-bashing also conveniently leaves out the fact that BART unions accepted $100 million in concessions in 2009 at the height of the recession--thus, under even the most optimistic assessment of the tentative agreement, by 2017, workers will barely get back to where they were four years ago.

Clearly, BART managers hoped that they could win another round of big cuts in workers' wages and benefits, despite the fact that the high-tech-heavy Bay Area economy is robust and BART ridership is up.

Management's original offer included significant increases in what workers would pay out of pocket for medical insurance and their pensions, a wage hike below the rate of inflation and a gutting of work rules that would open the door to layoffs. BART bosses also wanted contract language that would have allowed them to victimize union members who spoke out against sexual or racial harassment or were outspoken union militants.

Had this plan gone through, it would have signaled a significant weakening of union strength at BART and opened the door to demoralization and a potential frontal assault along the lines of the union-busting attack against New York subway workers.

BART UNION members were able to hold the line against management's wish list because they took to the picket lines and shut down the transit system.

Like the September 2012 Chicago teachers struggle, the BART fight shows that the strike remains the single most powerful weapon in standing up to the kind of union-busting attacks on public-sector workers seen in Wisconsin, Detroit and elsewhere. As SEIU Local 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez told the media before calling the union out on strike, "You can only bend so far before you break."

However, despite their willingness to strike, there were weaknesses in the unions' game plan.

The BART unions were apparently taken by surprise by management's intransigence in the run-up to the July strike. But the three-month period before the showdown in October could have been used more effectively to mobilize labor, student and community support.

In fact, SEIU Local 1021 members working for the city of Oakland had struck alongside BART workers on the first day of the July walkout before winning a modest raise at the bargaining table. East Bay bus drivers for AC Transit in ATU Local 192 have been in a bitter contract fight themselves, where Gov. Brown has imposed the same 60-day cooling-off period that the BART unions endured.

There were other possibilities for uniting the BART workers' struggle with those of other unions. A string of contract fights are heating up in the Bay Area, including public school teachers and University of California campus workers and graduate employees. There are also labor fights like the Fight for 15 fast-food workers campaign and actions at the Oakland ports by non-union truck drivers.

BART union leaders did recognize the importance of building public support. "We understand that the strike has been an incredible inconvenience to Bay Area commuters," said John Arantes, the BART chapter president of SEIU Local 1021, upon announcing the tentative contract. "BART workers were raising issues at the table that are important to all workers. And we thank the thousands of Bay Area men and women who supported our fight for a contract that puts the safety of riders and workers first."

But the unions never got out in front with a plan to mobilize this support. In past strikes, BART workers could rely on their ability to shut down the trains to win. This time, in the face of an all-out assault by management, a more aggressive mobilizing strategy was needed, including mass picket lines, delegations of workers visiting neighborhoods, schools and other union workplaces, and coordination with their brothers and sisters in ATU Local 192.

Had BART management's plan to run scab trains been put into operation after a week or two of small picket lines, the unions might have been pushed on the defensive and forced to accept a contract with bigger concessions.

AS IT turned out, BART management's gross incompetence led to the tragic deaths of two people struck by a train operated by a potential scab "trainee." This shocking development highlighted the dangers of management's plan to rip up work rules and ended any chance BART might have had to begin running trains operated by "trainees."

One of the two killed, 58-year-old Christopher Sheppard, was a member of the smallest BART union, AFSCME Local 3993, which represents train controllers and some supervisors. These deaths were a painful experience for many striking BART workers, and the unions organized candlelight vigils on several picket lines.

However, rather than stepping up the mobilization after this tragedy to expose management's careless attitude about safety, the unions canceled some actions, kept picket lines small, and agreed to round-the-clock negotiations, in the hopes that behind-the-scenes pressure from local Democrats would force management to accept a deal.

If this strategy worked in securing a contract that is at least a step forward, the danger of relying on Democrats was demonstrated immediately when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped up to the microphones as leaders announced the tentative agreement ending the strike, and warned that "this can never happen again."

Newsom's opportunistic move may play well to his deep-pocketed funders in Silicon Valley, who he hopes will carry him to the governor's mansion when Brown retires. But it was a slap in the face to the union members and leaders in whose name he claimed to speak.

The idea that BART workers should "never again" strike ignores the reality that if they hadn't done just that twice in little more than three months, their members would have suffered a defeat at the negotiating table.

It seems likely that a very large percentage of BART union members will vote to ratify the tentative agreement--and most are rightly proud that they stood up against management. But while the details are not yet entirely clear, it has to be said that several concessions contained in this contract set a dangerous precedent for the future.

The unions' givebacks include sending some work rules to arbitration, increased payments for health insurance, and accepting the principle of worker contributions into a pension plans that has traditionally been employer-funded.

These concessions should be openly discussed and debated by union members. Even if money from various BART funds can temporarily offset the added costs for workers, they still set a dangerous precedent, because they will make it harder for other workers to fend off similar attacks.

But certainly the lesson that strikes are critical to winning better contracts should be spread far and wide. The strike's role in unifying the membership will be crucial, as no one believes that Crunican and her managerial team have abandoned their goal of weakening the unions.

Beyond their own struggle, BART workers are now well placed to bring their strength to the aid of their brothers and sisters in other labor and community battles. If the BART strikers won a small but significant battle in what has so often been a one-sided class war of the 1 Percent against the rest of us, then there are dozens of other hot spots for Bay Area labor where solidarity is needed.

BART workers shouldn't wait for the next fight to come to them in four years. They should make their presence felt now on picket lines and in solidarity action across the region.

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