Why Transit Strike Bans Are A Bad Idea

Preventing transit strikes do not solve the public transit problems, and perhaps make them worse.

BART strike ban

People may be frustrated about the BART strike, but making them unable to strike will only make things worse for everyone.  (Image Source:  Reuters)

As commuters enter the fourth day of BART's second strike in three months, it seems incredibly unlikely that the strike will end as quickly as the first strike, which ended with a temporary contract extension.  Instead, talks could stretch out for more than a couple weeks, possibly even stretching as far as the Thanksgiving weekend.  Emotions run high in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially among BART riders, who feel shafted by this massive disruption to their daily commute.  Some frustrated riders, placing blame entirely on BART's unions rather than equally blaming them and BART management, wish to ban strikes all together, and that sentiment is growing.  However, those riders miss the point of strikes and unions all together, and will only see public transit get worse if they push for it to happen.

The way union contracts work is simple:  All the workers in union are part of a singular contract, which not only dictates how workers are compensated based on their job and service, but also the work rules that they are expected to follow while at work, among other guidelines.  The BART strike itself is happening right now because talks broke down over work rules, not pay as some believe.  However, these contracts are intentionally designed to last only a period of a few years at minimum, to allow for readjustment based on the needs of the time, benefiting both the organization and the unions as times change the economic circumstances.

However, because that contract has a deadline, that means that if a contract expires, essentially a worker has to work without pay until a new contract has been agreed on and signed unless they strike.  Imagine for a second being suddenly forced to work without pay.  Would you say that you would last very long at your job?  How long would you work without pay before quitting?  There is very little doubt that you would be out the door pretty quickly.  Now, imagine if you were forced to work without pay, and when you are paid again, you do not get paid for the work you did before the strike, also called back pay.  That is always a possibility when negotiating a new contract, for organizations will do everything in their power to keep you from being paid.

Strikes are not something that unions like to use, contrary to popular belief, for it is a self-inflicted wound.  The unions are the first people to know what strikes do to everyone, and it hurts their workers just as much, if not more, than the people they are striking against.  Thus, unions use strikes only as a last resort measure to ensure that organizations and companies are negotiating in good faith, and that a reasonable contract is made out of those negotiations.  By taking away that ability to strike, the company can force any contract on the unions, including massive pay cuts, winning by mere attrition. 

Furthermore, as union contracts represent a primitive check against mismanagement, taking away the ability to strike allows organizations and companies to be wasteful and negligent, as well as do things that nobody wants to do.  This can be seen in San Francisco itself, with its local Muni public transit system.  The city does not allow Muni workers to strike in its city charter, and yet there are no checks against mismanagement, which has allowed Muni to become one of the slowest, most unreliable public transit systems in the country.

People want this BART strike to end, and it is causing untold aggravation and suffering.  But a lot of support for the transit strike ban is driven by a sense of entitlement, one that is common in the Bay Area, as well as personal greed driven by the above-average salaries that BART workers possess.  In terms of greed, people do not understand that the salaries of these BART workers do not appear out of thin air, but are the result of years upon decades of contract negotiation, precedent, bargaining, and compromise.  The labor movement's decline in this country — due to several factors too long to discuss here — has led people to not even know how unions function, let alone why they exist. 

People also fail to see that they take the BART, let alone any form of public transit in this country that is more than a small fleet of buses, for granted.  The majority of people who ride BART, especially those in the suburbs of San Francisco and Oakland, could just as easily afford to use a car to commute to work.  It might be more expensive, and it might be harder to handle on the grounds of both cities' terrible parking situation, but that choice is still there for people like the transit strike ban supporters to take.

Supporters of the transit strike ban instead made the choice to use BART.  Not many places in this country have a functioning public transit system that can reliably be used as an option get around town, let alone commute to work.  Fewer still have a robust public transit system like that in the San Francisco Bay Area.  People made the choice to live here, and the choice to use BART.  That choice comes with breakdowns such as this strike.  They need to live with that, and not directly meddle with other workers' lives and jobs for the sake of their own personal benefit.

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