Now that a second BART strike is upon us, let’s be clear about one thing: this strike is absolutely unnecessary and could easily have been prevented. In the final days of negotiations, the unions had accepted management’s demands for higher employee healthcare contributions. They had already agreed to a pension deal that was favorable to management. They had in place a framework for a deal on pay that was acceptable to both sides and which represented a further reduction – after several significant reductions in the previous two weeks – in the unions’ wage proposals. And contrary to what has been reported in the media, the unions had made important concessions on work rules and were prepared to submit the few remaining of disagreement to expedited voluntary arbitration.
A way out was possible – but BART management said “no”
On the final day of negotiations, this flexibility on the part of BART unions – clearly driven by a genuine desire to avoid a second disastrous strike -- counted for nothing. When BART management’s negotiating team entered the room on the 15th floor of the Caltrans building at approximately 3.30 pm on Thursday, after almost 27 hours of straight bargaining the previous day, chief negotiator Tom Hock explained that the unions’ concessions were insufficient. Instead of settling, BART management was reverting to the “last, best, and final” offer that it had presented to unions on 4 pm on Sunday (even although bargaining was not at an impasse), a regressive offer it knew was unacceptable to the unions. When asked point blank, several times, if BART management would submit the remaining differences work rules to expedited interest arbitration, rather than force a second strike, Tom Hock replied, “no.” Rather than agree to interest arbitration over a few remaining issues, after enormous movement on both sides, BART management simply said “no.”
The unions expressed their utter dismay at management’s intransigence – especially given that the sides were so close to a deal -- and the federal mediators expressed their profound disappointment. BART management walked out of the room, and that was that.
Did BART Ever Want an Agreement?
Given the outcome of Thursday’s final bargaining session, it is difficult not to conclude that BART management intended to force a second strike all along. Although they would never say so in public, even three of the country’s leading federal mediators – including George Cohen, Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service – likely suspected that some members of the BART negotiating team really wanted another strike, probably because they hope it will end in no-strike legislation. Other members of the team may have genuinely wanted to avoid a stoppage, but were obviously prepared to live with one, if it were necessary to get the sweeping changes they wanted from certain key work rules. Those who were determined to force an absolutely unnecessary strike won out in the end. If any further evidence of their desire for a strike were needed, BART management rejected out-of-hand another union compromise that would have gotten the trains running by 10 pm on Friday.
BART’s Disingenuous Media Message
Throughout the strike, BART management has repeatedly made misleading statements to the media on its contract offers and the status of negotiations. But little can compare to the comments of BART Board of Directors President Tom Radulovich, who on Thursday evening said the District was “very, very surprised today when the unions walked out and said they weren’t going to talk to us anymore.” Radulovich’s contention that the unions had walked out and effectively terminated bargaining was not only a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts, but it was almost precisely the opposite of what had transpired on Thursday afternoon. BART management had walked away when a deal was in sight – even the mediators appeared confident that a deal was imminent – and the idea that the District could have been “very, very surprised” by the unions’ reaction can only be described is utterly ludicrous. BART management forced a strike and then was surprised by the outcome? A more honest assessment came from BART Director Zakhary Mallett, who recommended that management should play "hardball with the union to see who blinks first."
Throughout this dispute BART management has stressed the economic obstacles to a deal. Then, when the federal mediators put together a deal that effectively bridged the economic gap, it walked away. Management’s 11th hour hardline focus on sweeping work rule changes that it knew the unions could not accept – and its absolute refusal to submit these work rules to binding arbitration -- was designed to derail negotiations that were moving towards completion. These work rules had not been a central focus in negotiations in the days leading up to Thursday’s debacle. Thus, management’s announcement that the unions must accept sweeping changes to key work rules that significantly affect the working lives of every BART employee or face withdraw of the entire package was clearly designed to force a strike. Despite Radulovich’s efforts to deceive the public, BART management clearly understood that was the only possible outcome to its bad faith bargaining.
The long-term implications of this sorry episode are not yet clear. When the dust has settled on this dispute, BART’s Board of Directors may yet regret forcing an unnecessary strike.
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.