I spent some time on the lines with striking BART workers today, picketing in 100-plus-degree heat out in eastern Alameda County (about 30 miles from San Francisco). Before heading out to the lines, I tried to find out what I could about what’s in dispute: what the union is asking for, and what management is demanding. It’s hard to find this information in the mainstream media, which is mainly interested in bashing “greedy workers” who want to make life miserable for the public and jeopardize the region’s economy.
As readers of this blog know, this is a strike by two unions (ATU Local 1555, representing about 1,000 drivers and station agents) and SEIU 1021 (representing about 1,400 maintenance workers and inspectors). Four years ago, the BART unions agreed to “shared sacrifice” to “help the system” during the recession. They agreed to concessions that saved BART an estimated $100 million, including a wage freeze and a hiring freeze. So they haven’t had a raise in five years, BART has 8% fewer workers, and work-related injuries are up 43% compared to 2009.
There are lots of problems with buying into “shared sacrifice”. As BART workers have discovered, one of them is that management doesn’t just want workers to sacrifice when times are bad. They also demand sacrifices when times are good. So although BART now projects a $125 million per year surplus for the next ten years, management is demanding more concessions from the unions.
BART management’s proposed settlement calls for a 4-year contract, to include wage increases of 2% per year that would be more than offset by increased worker contributions to pensions and health care. The BART unions estimate that management’s proposal would amount to a net cut to total compensation of more than 3%, and real compensation would be eroded further by increased cost of living.
The BART unions are asking for a 3-year contract with pay increases of 5% per year, no increased worker contributions to pensions and health care, and improved safety conditions. Management and the mainstream media portray this as “outrageous” demands by “greedy workers”. But considering that BART workers haven’t had a raise in five years, what they’re asking for amounts to less than 2% per year over an eight-year period that includes the past five years. BART management says that workers’ pay averages about $71,000 / year. The unions dispute that figure – but the fact is, $71,000 / year is less than the $74,341 / year that the Oakland-based Center for Community Economic Development says a family of four needs to get by in the Bay Area.
Long story short: the BART workers are asking for very little, especially since they’ve gone five years without a raise. What they’re asking for, really, is to hold the line. Management wants more sacrifices – that’s spelled A-U-S-T-E-R-I-T-Y. They want BART workers to take cuts to their overall compensation. They don’t want to fix the deteriorating safety conditions that have so sharply increased work-related injuries – and that put the safety of the BART-riding public at risk.
This is really a defensive strike over very modest demands. The media and the bosses are presenting it as something else because even this very modest strike threatens them: here is a union that has the temerity to actually say “Enough! We won’t sacrifice this time!” and to actually go out on strike. The workers I spoke to told me, “We’re not just fighting for us. We’re fighting for all unions, to say ‘No More Cuts’”.
If only they would take their stance forward to aggressively reach out to the entire working class community: First, to aggressively demand an expansion of free, accessible, and adequate mass transit – paid for at the expense of the banks and corporations (they got bailed out; we got our services slashed). Second, to demand jobs at adequate pay for all – an especially important demand for relatively higher-paid workers to embrace. And if only the more than a dozen other Bay Area unions with expired contracts (including their brothers and sisters in the ATU east bay bus drivers’ local) would join them!