Why Is BART Striking Again? A Handy Guide

We discuss in-depth why the Bay Area regional transit system is striking for the second time in a month.

On Thursday, the three unions representing Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) announced a courtesy 72-hour strike notice.  This comes after workers rallied in Downtown Oakland for union support.  That means, barring a last-minute contract deal, that Sunday will be the last day of operations as BART, the primary regional transit system of the San Francisco Bay Area, shuts down for the second time in a month due to a labor strike.  It is exceedingly rare that, after a brief strike, a union strikes again so shortly afterward.  However, evidence seems to suggest that neither BART management, nor the BART unions, are anywhere close to a deal.

But why is this happening again?  What is going on to cause this strike, which will impact hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents for the second time?  Most importantly, though, who is to blame for the mess?  The situation is far more complicated than simple "blame the unions!" or "BART is greedy!" exhortations.  Let us look at what we know, and what has led to this unfortunate disaster.

The Offers

BART Unions
2% annual raise over 4 years (8% total) 7.16% annual raise over 3 years (21.5% total)
Workers pay 10% of salary toward health insurance (~$347), phased in over 4 years Workers pay current monthly rate of $92
Workers pay 5% of monthly salary to pension plan, phased in over 4 years Workers do not pay into pension plan

Caveat:  These are the offers as reported on BART's website, as of July 30.  While BART's offer may be taken as true, their publication of the unions' offer may be less reliable.  We have contacted the unions for more information, and any changes to the unions' offer will be posted here.

Who Is Hurt Most?

Riders in San Francisco and points south will suffer significantly, since both Muni and Samtrans, their respective local transit services, do not have the complete capacity to handle the added riders.  Riders in Berkeley to San Francisco also suffer, since only one Transbay bus route caters to the university town.  Furthermore, those riders who travel from Oakland and coastal parts of the East Bay inland towards office parks in Walnut Creek and Concord are severely affected, since there is no direct service between the two areas by local transit agencies.

A History of Questionable Decisions

BART, in its discussions on the strike, have said that they are running low on funding.  This is in spite of record ridership levels in the last year.  So what gives?  There is some suggestion that a big part of BART's problem lies in funding an expansionary agenda which does not match with rider needs.  Currently, four expansion projects are underway.  While one, which will connect BART to San Jose and Silicon Valley, are of tremendous benefit, the others are far more dubious and quite expensive.  For example, a 4.8-mile 1-stop extension to Livermore in the East Bay costs over $1 billion, and the stop serves more as a commuter station rather than as a way to directly access the city itself, adding only 21,000 daily riders.  Another extension, which which will serve the far-flung eastern suburbs, will not even be directly connected with the BART system, as it is using a different cost-effective set of trains that run on diesel rather than electricity.  Costs have not even been finalized there, but it could number in the billions as well, as it will require building a new set of tracks, and it will already cost more than $500 million just to widen the highway it is adjacent to in order to accommodate the new tracks.  What makes things more of an issue is that these extension projects are diverting money away from important maintenance projects, including the earthquake retrofitting of the tunnel connecting San Francisco to Oakland currently underway and expected to last until late 2014.

In addition, while BART has been relying heavily on recurring revenue, it has ignored a possible revenue source since its foundation:  A special tax for property owners near BART stations who experienced increases in land value since the stations were built.  In the wake of an intense and profitable real estate market that exists in San Francisco, the fact that this opportunity, which would be legal under the auspices of state tax reform law Proposition 13, was squandered makes the appearance of a cash-strapped BART even more ridiculous.  That members of the Board of Directors—such as District 5's Zakhary Mallet, who has been railing against the unions personally on his Facebook page—have not only continued to support the expansions, but have further plans for expansion in other parts of the region without much of a source of funding, makes their case against the unions rather shoddy.  (Disclosure:  The writer in this article resides in BART District 5 and voted for Mallet in last year's elections, much to his shame)

A History of Naïvete

This is not to say the unions are completely off the hook.  In many ways, the unions had clear warning that something nasty was coming their way, and not just through the election of less-labor friendly executives.  BART began ramping up a public relations campaign intended to solidify their position in the months before contracts expired.  Furthermore, BART hired well-known union buster Tom Hock to lead negotiations on their side (more on him later).  But the larger problem is that the unions rely too heavily on historical precedent in the Bay Area, which has been pro-labor and home to some major strikes in the last century, to garner public support, rather than an equally active PR campaign.

The problem with their reliance is that San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole, is not what it was in 1996, the last time the BART unions had a strike.  Back then, San Francisco was a far more culturally and economically-diverse city, with an active blue collar base.  Then, the Internet happened to the Bay Area.  Two dot-com booms have dramatically altered the demographics of San Francisco, which trickled out to the rest of the Bay Area.  Gone are many of the blue collar workers and artists that represented  San Francisco's character.  In their place are rich techies working at places like Google and Facebook who take charter buses to work in Silicon Valley, to the south.  Many of these people are ostensibly liberal, but have such a limited comprehension of labor and working conditions, that they do not understand why it is such a bad thing to be working more than 60 hours per week, or why not being given certain benefits that unions fought so hard to have in place is so wrong.  For them, the solution to any problem they face, be it a major collective problem or otherwise, is to either build or use new technology to get around it, throw a lot of money at it, or some combination thereof.  To them, unions are an abstract and inefficient concept to their world.  Representative of this behavior was Apple executives being "surprised" when labor rights activists in China suggested they actually treat their overworked, underpaid workers at iPhone factories as human workers, and perhaps take greater care in managing labor negotiations.

So it was no surprise that, when the first strike went down, all BART had to do was make two points in their PR campaign that made all the difference:  The average salary of a BART worker is $76,551, and they pay only $92 per month for health insurance.  That turned public opinion instantly against the unions, despite the fact that their salaries were earned through decades of negotiations, and their average pension of $21,768 was below average for the region.  Arrogant techies, again ignorant of the importance of labor rights, exploited this situation by hawking paid ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, which tend to cost far more than a taxicab ride, but catered to aggravated techies willing to shell $40 or so for a ride to work.  That, combined with a general ambivalence towards unions, put the unions' backs against the wall, for it did not matter what happened at the negotiating table: BART won the PR war.

A History of Asininity

With the unions smarting from the first strike, the trouble now stands on getting back to the bargaining table.  The problem though is that it seems like both sides are refusing to budge on their offers.  Exacerbating problems is BART's lead negotiator, Tom Hock.  Hock, a consultant for private transportation firm Veolia, is being paid $350 per hour to serve as negotiator, likely earning a maximum of $399,000 just to handle this contract dispute.  The problem is, Hock has had a history of poor labor negotiations, and even has a series of complaints against the National Labor Relations Board against him for such things as being deceptive and dishonest, refusing to meet with unions he was supposed to negotiate with, among other things.

The situation is no different now.  Throughout early negotiations, the unions were unable to receive proper information on BART's stance on key points such as raises, likely a tactic by Hock to instigate a lowball/hardball approach.  He was frequently unavailable, even in the days leading to the first strike.  After a two-week cooling-off period following the first strike, the unions and BART had to wait another week before returning to negotiations, because Hock decided to take a vacation that week.  The unions are attempting to turn the tables in negotiations by using Hock's negligence against BART, saying that they want to go back to end this dispute more than BART wants to end it.  However, the unions are struggling to make that case by publicly making a counteroffer themselves or even hinting that they are willing to compromise. 

A History Not Worth Repeating

BART's promises that they are not asking for a pay cut, even though the pension and health contributions exceed the pay raise, resonate more with the public than the unions' bad faith negotiation claims, simply because the latter are holding their cards way too close.  The unions are right that BART is turning this into a PR war by avoiding the bargaining table, but that does not mean they should just avoid the PR situation outright.  The public is still relatively hostile to the unions following the strike and apprehensive for a second strike.  But BART is hurting themselves as well by losing revenue from each day there is a strike, and the fact that they put themselves into a giant corner from bad decision-making in terms of overall policy and negotiations.  If a strike drags on, the public will turn against BART management as well, and it will destroy their revenue and reputation, if and when service resumes.

If a second strike occurs on Monday as planned, it will be hard to tell who will be sympathized more this time:  BART, or the unions.  However, if the strike drags on, or if a second extension is invoked, the public will eventually see both of them as equally responsible for the mess.  This may force a quick end, but at great cost to their respective reputations.  The only people that will stand to gain are the techies, and those are the last people we want scoring empty victories.

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