BART workers settle strike

By CLAY WADENA

— OAKLAND, Calif. — Workers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system went back to work Oct. 22, as the second work strike in one year came to an end following an agreement on a tentative contract between negotiators. At press time the contract has yet to be ratified by the rank-and-file. The train operators and station agents are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555, while other workers belong to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

BART workers, who shut down the fifth busiest mass transit rail in the U.S. for four days in order to defend their quality of life, proved they were strong enough to weather the storm of slander and hate directed at them by politicians and the corporate media.

While full details of the contract are unavailable at press time, it appears that union negotiators made concessions, including an increase in employee pension contributions from zero under the old contract to 4% (in 2017). Unions in June had initially offered to contribute 0.5% to pensions, while management had asked for 6%. This will significantly offset the wage increase that workers were given.

The tentative contract would give workers a 3.85% raise each year through 2017, for a total of 15.38% total raise over four years. Initial proposals from management included keeping wages nearly flat, but the offer was up to 12% in mid-October; while initial union proposals included a 29% wage increase, according to reports. The tentative agreement includes new rules that make it harder for workers to earn larger overtime checks as well.

Health-care costs would increase for BART workers from $92 per month today to about $130 per month, a larger flat rate that was not the 9.5% percentage cost that management proposed shortly before the second strike. BART workers’ family members are still covered at no additional charge.

Interestingly, it was reported that BART management and the unions had already come to an agreement on economic, health-care, and pension issues before going on strike again on Oct. 18, and the unions had even offered to send the remaining issue—work rules—to arbitration. Yet management refused, thus forcing part two of the labor strike. Some have taken this to mean that management thought it had more to gain by the workers’ going on strike a second time, perhaps believing that public opinion was so solidly in their favor that it could obtain even more concessions.

It is not known what management had up their sleeves, but when two workers inspecting a track were killed by a train operated by a trainee, on Oct. 19, it cast suspicions that management was preparing to replace BART workers instead of seriously negotiating to end the strike.

When the workers first went on strike on July 1, before Gov. Jerry Brown ended it with a 60-day cooling-off period, workers’ complaints of unsafe working conditions had been lost amid the media hysteria about “greedy” BART workers. It was only after the two workers were killed that worker safety once again made it into the news.

Management immediately increased safety standards; BART trains travel at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, but management will now begin restricting their speed to 27 mph through job sites. But why did workers have to die for these standards to be implemented?

When track inspector James Strickland was killed along the same set of tracks in 2008, BART officials promised to look into available digital technology that would alert workers when trains approach; but they claimed to have found nothing suitable. In the meantime, BART policy for workers’ safety doesn’t include warnings that trains are coming; instead, it amounts to one worker focusing on the track while another watches their back for trains (so they can see an approaching train 15 seconds away). This is the best policy according to management because with a digital warning system “workers become overly dependent on the devices.”

Basic safety issues like bullet-proof glass in stations, warnings that trains are approaching at 70 mph, and staffing two station agents early in the morning and late at night were rarely discussed in mainstream news stories; rather, the workers’ wages were constantly evaluated and inspected—apparently for evidence that they were far too privileged to have any complaint whatsoever.

The class positions of corporate profiteers, politicians, newspapers, and the media in general are rarely as apparent as during a work strike by organized labor. The responses in this instance were overwhelmingly against the strike, but sometimes painted in the liberal trappings of pity for the inconvenience that the strike caused to so many people.

A Democratic city councilman and candidate for state assembly from Orinda, Calif., Steve Glazer, called for a prohibition of transit strikes because strikes “cripple our economy, hurt workers getting to their jobs, limit access to schools and health care, and damage our environment.” Calif. State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat, said he was looking into legislation to prevent future strikes.Richard White, CEO of UserVoice, said, “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”

Politicians and newspapers quibbled about banning strikes; CEOs and people writing blogs explored ways to automate train operation and eliminate jobs (as if the unions were composed entirely of train operators), but many workers remained grounded in the fact that behind all the hype they weren’t asking for much, since wages have been frozen since 2009.

“BART is running a surplus,” train operator Eddie Turner said. “This system works and we are the people who make it work.” Kay Wilson, a BART worker on the picket line, said, “I make no apologies for wanting to go to work, do my job well, and get paid for that.”

In today’s worldwide climate of austerity, capitalism is attempting to set back public-sector workers and their unions to an unprecedented degree. This will undoubtedly force many more strikes from workers struggling to maintain their standard of living. All working people should know which side they stand on, and show their solidarity, according to the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all!”