Last train

BART standoff has national implications in an age of wealth and austerity

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BART emplyees picket on the corner of Market and Montgomery on Moday. July 1
PHOTO BY ALEX LEBER

steve@sfbg.com

Last week's four-day strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers dominated the news and made headlines around the country, marking the latest battleground in a national war between public employee unions and the austerity agenda pushed by conservatives and neoliberals.

Of course, that wasn't how the conflict was framed by BART, most journalists, or even the two BART unions involved, all of whom dutifully reported the details of each sides' offers and counter-offers, the competing "safety" narratives (new security procedures demands by unions versus spending more on capital improvements than raises), and the strike's impact on commuters and the local economy.

But once this long-simmering labor standoff seized the attention of a public heavily reliant on BART, fueling the popular anger and resentment increasingly directed at public employee unions in recent years, familiar basic storylines emerged.

At that point, the Bay Area could have been placed in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, or Illinois — the most recent high-profile labor union battlegrounds, with their narratives of greedy public employees clinging to their fully funded pensions and higher than average salaries while the rest of us suffer through this stubbornly lingering hangover from the Great Recession.

Around water coolers and online message boards, there were common refrains: How dare those unions demand the raises that the rest of us are being denied! Pensions? Who has fully funded pensions anymore? Why can't they just be more realistic?

When Bay Area residents were finally forced to find other ways of getting around, within a transportation system that is already at the breaking point during peak hours thanks to years of austerity budgets and under-investment in basic infrastructure, those seething resentments exploded into outright anger.

And those political dynamics could only get worse in a month. The BART strike could resume full strength on a non-holiday workweek if the two sides aren't able to come to an agreement before the recently extended contract expires.

This is the Bay Area's most visible and impactful labor standoff, and it could prove to be a pivotal one for the modern American labor movement.

 

BART AS BELLWETHER

Chris Daly was a clarion voice for progressive values while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2000-2010. Now, as political director of Service Employee International Union Local 1021, one of the BART unions, he says this standoff is about more than just the issues being discussed at the bargaining table.

"The terms and conditions of workers in the public sector is a buoy for other workers," Daly told us, explaining how everyone's wages and benefits tend to follow the gains and setbacks negotiated by unions. "The right understands this, which is why the right has been mercilessly attacking public sector workers."

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, confirmed that union contracts affect the overall labor market. "When unions improve wages and benefits, it does have a ripple effect," Jacobs said. He agreed that the outcome at BART could be a bellwether for the question, "As the economy comes back, how much will workers share in that prosperity?"

Demonizing public sector workers as greedy or lazy also serves to undercut the entire labor movement, Daly said, considering that public employees make up a far higher percentage of union members than their private sector counterparts. And during election time, it is union money and ground troops that typically contest wealthy individuals and corporations' efforts to maintain or expand power.

"Labor is one of the main checks on unbridled corporate power, and public sector unions are the backbone of labor," Daly told us.

Comments

Great piece, Steve. Thanks.

Posted by Andy on Jul. 10, 2013 @ 9:47 am

If the BART workers went to work but refused to collect fares they would have overwhelming support of the public. Instead we get vague arguments that it is "the right thing to do" on the left to support the union. I'm sure the reports of their pay and benefits are highly inflated by the opposition and press, but BART's union leadership isn't doing a great job of PR either in making us love them. They should look to Roger Toussaint during the MTA strike.

Maybe it also has a challenge because no one LOVES the BART experience to begin with. I happen to love MTA in NY because all incomes use it and it gets you where you need to go efficiently. I understand this is not the fault of the workers, but it's hard to feel passionate about fighting for over priced, smelly and old trains that cover very little ground and ruin your hearing and hate bicycle riders. If not for the traffic jam at the bay bridge toll booth and the expensive downtown parking, I'm pretty sure most people prefer their cars to the BART experience. But like you said, that's a disinvestment problem from the state.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 10, 2013 @ 11:34 am

BART strike is not about workers’ greed, it is about what every middle class American across this great nation must stand for and support, a decent pay and benefit package to live and raise a family on with dignity and peace of mind. This is exactly what is being vilified and tabooed in this nation by the corporate owned media, greedy industrialists, Wall Street bankers and their politician underlings.
People deserve to make a decent living in this country. Pitting one group of workers against another is an old and proven colonialist tactic: divide and conquer. Workers must be smarter than to fall for this old ruse. Workers must unite and demand what they deserve. Ask why is the economy in shambles? Was it because of teachers, transit workers and police officers? No, it is the result of the greed and reckless behavior of fat cat Wall Street bankers. Now, the middle class workers are being forced to pay for their mistakes. If middle class workers refuse they are labeled as greedy and out of touch with reality.
The prevailing argument in the media that one or more class of workers do not have, for example, employer sponsored health insurance therefore, BART workers must follow suite, is ludicrous. This logic is upside down. The argument must about setting BART’s benefit package as a minimum base line for all industries and shame those employers who offer anything less to their workers. Let’s have a race to the top not to the bottom.
Middle class is being railroaded and trampled upon since the early 1980’s when President Regan fired the flight controllers. The main idea was to roll back the gains that unions fought for in the last century and take us back to when workers had no right and were treated inhumanly as fungible and disposable commodities. Is this what we want to revive? It seems we are taking as granted the very basic and universal work rules that we all enjoy today, like 40- hour work week, two- day weekend, no child labor, lunch break and so on. Where did these rules come from? I can safely assure you they did not come from employers’ generosity coffer. Labor unions fought for every one of them over many years and now they have become the universal rules across all industries. Let’ not start down the slippery slope of taking more and more away from the middle class.
We as a society must decide how do we want to treat our workers. Do we want them to be poor and deprived, not able to afford the very basic necessities of life like health care, education, and above all a decent pension, or do we want to rejuvenate our shrinking middle class and with it bring back the glory days of this country. Think about it before you criticize BART workers and remember what they gain will eventually be your gain and what they lose will eventually be your loss. Do not bring down your follow middle class workers. Go out there and elevate yourself by demanding what you deserve and make this a better world for all of us.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 10, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

"At what point do we organize and demand retirement security for all workers?" Daly said, noting that SEIU is now leading that fight on behalf of all workers, not just its members. "What we ought to be talking about is how we restore the social contract."

Talk is cheap. Labor has abandoned unorganized working people in favor of its own narrower interests. This alarm has been going off for a two decades now.

Despite what Chris and Ron say, if labor is incapable of contesting give backs as has been the case in SF for the past decade, I'm not seeing where they can go it alone on expanding pensions within the usual Democrat Party constellation of coffee klatch politicos.

Either organized labor relearns how to organize labor or organized labor succumbs to entropy.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 10, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

I was SHOCKED in our last contract when we got no raises for four years BUT, buried deep in the contract, was a 9% raise for the Union President and Vice President.

I've been complaining for years that SEIU turns a blind eye when other people at BART do our work, and for a lot more money. I can tell you a lot of us, especially professionals, have a lot of ambivalence about SEIU. Personally, I'd jump from SEIU to AFSCME in a second if I could--better pay, no time clocks, advancement and promotion opportunities. SEIU has turned out to be a dead end.

Posted by Scott_1237 on Jul. 13, 2013 @ 6:55 am

From the SF Merc "We will be prepared for war...," Roxanne Sanchez, president of the local Service Employees International Union, told the board. "We will be prepared for the bloodiest, longest strike since the 1970s," when a labor dispute shut down BART for three months in 1979."

Remember, the unions are striking against the public. They work for the public and are promising a bloody strike against the public. Be careful for what you ask for. Blood spills both ways.

Before Chris Daly rants against the (admittedly) large compensation package BART management gets, he should reveal his own 6-figure compensation package that comes out of the member's pockets.

Don't forget - the median compensation package for BART workers is $117,000, including part timers and those who started or ended their employment in the year. 700 get packages that exceed $170,000 - so they are ALL overpaid.

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 12, 2013 @ 9:22 am

Question for steve@sfbg.com:

Does the Guardian pay you $130,000 in annual compensation?

Does the Guardian fully fund a generous pension for you?

Does the Guardian provide you with health insurance for $92 a month, no matter how many persons you have in your family?

If not, why not?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

BART employees get pensions instead of Social Security, not in addition to it. In the past, it was cheaper for the District to pay for pensions than it would have been if they had to pay the employer share of Social Security.

Posted by Scott_1237 on Jul. 13, 2013 @ 6:52 am

Because they are not free at all. The rest of us have to pay for it, as well for our own pensions and healthcare.

That's why there was so little public support for the BART unions and workers.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 3:46 am

I just don't understand the argument that because many of us don't have economic and retirement security then BART workers should have them either. You trolls have backward. The problem isn't that they have a pension, the problem is that I and many other workers don't, and it's a problem that will have increasingly serious repercussions if it's not dealt with.

Posted by steven on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 8:37 am

Steven, the problem is that labor abandoned solidarity with the "working class" when they kept their pensions and did nothing to help almost everyone else when ours were being stripped from us.

For a few in the professional activist class, invoking the shibboleth of "the most vulnerable" suffices to coerce support. But the reservoirs of liberal white guilt are long since exhausted within the expanding precariat.

Labor is paying the price measured in train wrecks for single tracking solidarity. People get paid good money to represent in this area because others who came before them organized working people in unions.

This is the predictable outcome for a generation of union staffers who are coasting on the fruits of others' organizing efforts, declining to organize as their predecessors did, while the circumstances of working America deteriorates around them.

The situation for union staffers is probably more secure than that of the rank and file union members.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 9:20 am

pensions and healthcare for everyone? It isclear to almost everyone that we cannot afford that, and yet the public sector lives in this bubble where they believe that they can just raise taxes on the rest of us forever rather than face reality.

The BART workers were clearly shocked when the public gave them so little support, but they should have realized that they are in a very privileged place, and cannot rely forever on us paying ever more taxes just so that they do not have to feel the pain that the rest of us do.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 10:47 am

We could afford it if the richest Americans, individuals and corporations, would pay their fair share in taxes. There's plenty of money out there.

Posted by Hortencia on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:13 am

The left always trots out this mantra that if only we tax the rich more, we can all live like kings with free this and that.

It's a myth. If the richest 100 Americans handed over their entire net worth, it would barely scratch the surface of what the entitlement brigade seek.

When entitlement rules, it is ordinary working Americans who get fleeced. Free anything is a myth.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:45 am

The economy could afford pensions in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and it can afford pensions today.

As finance capital grew in economic and political dominance, Wall Street set its eyes on those income streams and the fix was in.

Pensions are not free. The economy can handle pensions and old age care. If it cannot, then it is time to consider other economic models that have worked elsewhere.

Posted by Anony on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:31 am

retired person.

Now there are only two workers for every retiree.

The math has been transformed.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:47 am

I've been waiting for weeks for a BART maintenance worker to clean the doors of elevator #62 at the Embarcadero Station. I may go down there with some Windex and rags after calling the press.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 06, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

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