As the August 4 BART strike deadline approaches, the two sides remain far apart. Negotiations resume July 30 after being suspended last week while Thomas Hock, management’s $399,000 negotiator, enjoyed a vacation. Unfortunately for Bay Area residents and businesses, BART management shows no signs of abandoning the hardball tactics that forced SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 workers to strike on July 1. Two factors underlie BART’s hard line strategy: BART management believes the public will blame workers if a second strike occurs, and the elected BART Board is less supportive of unions than ever before. While the odds still favor a last-minute deal, BART management may be committed to provoking a second strike.
The lack of negotiating progress at BART since service resumed following the July 1-5 strike is discouraging. While labor negotiations often are driven by final deadlines, the war of words has intensified.
As I described after the strike began, the roots of labor-management conflict at BART goes back decades
. But there is more going on in 2013. Although BART operates in pro-union political districts, its Board and managers are seeking to capitalize on the national wave of attacks on public employees to force a bad deal on its two largest unions.
And BART is willing to provoke a second strike if necessary to prove this point.
Blaming Workers for a Strike
BART sees a second strike as a disaster for SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 while having no downside for BART’s Board or executives. Management’s assessment of public sentiment is based on more than the anti-worker attitudes routinely expressed in online comments. Rather, BART believes that people incredibly inconvenienced by a transit shutdown will blame the unions who called the strike rather than fault management intransigence. BART Board President Tom Radulovich reflected these sentiments when he told SEIU 1021 workers protesting in front of his office that BART’s workers “chose to strike.”
The major public inconvenience caused by transit strikes explains why transit unions always face an uphill battle in labor negotiations. That’s why I concluded that SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 won the first strike
. By striking, both unions will get a better contract than BART’s last pre-strike offer. And by staying strong, they have placed BART management under pressure to improve its current offer.
But for the public to support a second strike, this struggle needed to be viewed as a broader, community fight. The public needed to see SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 as representing riders interests as well as their members needs.
BART unions initially tried to frame their struggle as impacting the public by demanding that management address rising crime and violence at BART stations. But neither union organized ongoing community meetings around public safety in the months prior to the strike, and these arguments never penetrated the public debate. Few BART riders see a contract settlement as improving their safety, or BART’s performance.
To be sure, building community support is much easier when unions representing low-wage workers face a wealthy private sector employer. For example, UNITE HERE Local 2 regularly holds community meetings in preparation for potential hotel strikes, ensuring that key constituencies outside the union bargaining unit view the dispute as a larger social justice struggle.
Oakland’s SEIU 1021 workforce similarly built community support before recently winning its own major contract fight with the city. But BART workers have less connection to their customer base, and the public inconvenience of a BART shutdown creates a far greater risk of backlash against workers.
BART Board Political Shift
The second reason BART management is willing to provoke a second strike is the political shift on the elected BART Board.
San Francisco is a pro-labor town, but none of its three BART Board members are seen as strong labor allies. BART Board President Tom Radulovich and James Fang are longtime members repeatedly re-elected without serious opposition. Radulovich is a transit visionary and an outstanding BART Board member, but labor issues have never been his priority. Fang has been one of the few Board members to question management bloat
, but he too is not known as a champion of workers rights.
A third, partial San Francisco seat (which also covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties) is held by Zakhary Mallet. Mallet was a political unknown who defeated pro-labor incumbent Lynette Sweet in the November 2012 election.
Mallet’s election replaced a labor ally with an ambitious, pro-management representative. It’s a sign of how far BART races operate under the political radar that an anti-union candidate backed by white contractors upset over Sweet’s concern with minority jobs could win such an election in the progressive Bay Area (the SF Bay Guardian endorsed Mallet
, stating that “while he's a bit more moderate than us, particularly on fiscal issues, he's the best alternative to Sweet.”).
Since taking office, Mallet has pushed to raise BART fares for San Francisco, end the “A’ Fast Pass, and backed management’s lowball offers to its unions. That's what Mallet’s “fiscal moderation” means.
So while there are some solid pro-union voices on BART’s Board---most notably the East Bay’s Rebecca Saltzman ---the Board has backed management attacks on workers perhaps more than at any time in BART’s long history.
Labor Movement’s Challenge
The BART struggle has implications for all of Bay Area labor. If a public body can get away with fostering anti-worker attitudes and imposing lowball demands, public entities throughout the region will take notice.
This is particularly true given SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555’s past successes in winning fair contracts. If BART management’s hardball approach to public sector unions prevails, expect FOX News and other media to have a field day gloating over how even the progressive Bay Area is now sharply reining in worker benefits.
This is not a message the Bay Area should be sending. It’s time for BART’s Board to get a fair deal done, both to avoid a second strike and to continue the region’s long history of supporting economic fairness for workers.
Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. His new book, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century
, has just been released by UC Press. He is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century