Sunday, November 17, 2013

BART workers: hold firm for six weeks paid family leave, we'll all benefit

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have been involved in numerous negotiations on behalf on my union.  Not as a paid representative but as an elected rank and file member.  At contract time the agency I worked for usually handed over lots of ratepayer funds and taxpayer money to a private law firm; they didn’t trust our own human resources dept. perhaps.

One time we had a dispute over what the bosses referred to as “sick leave abuse. It was an ongoing thing with them. They used to make us put down on the sick leave slip what our ailment was.  We stopped that practice but they were always trying to limit it. We had better sick leave and vacation benefits than most workers I worked in the public sector, but even in the public sector, they don’t like to pay you when you’re not working. It is this somewhat more humane and secure work environment that the 1% wants to be rid of. 

Over the years and after numerous battles with them defending workers who they accused of abusing their sick leave rights, we came to an agreement on a “sick leave verification program” which instituted a process for determining abuse. We also won family sick leave and a few sick days were allowed for this purpose.  The important part of this leave was that it was not subject to the verification clause; this leave could not be included in determining abuse.

Some time after this, our bosses made a bit of a mistake; a good thing in a battle if you're on the other team.  They agreed that the 13 days annual sick leave we had could be used for family illness, or what we called family sick leave.  What they forgot was that they couldn’t use family sick leave in order to curb excessive time off the job. More and more workers called in family sick so family sick had to go.  They tried repeatedly to rid themselves of it even admitting it was a mistake and that workers were using FS as a means of getting more time off without being disciplined, or worse, fired.

Even though we had better time off benefits than most, the US provides little paid time of for workers compared to Europeans for example (see the graphics).  When they boast about us being more productive it is because we spend more time at work than workers in other industrial democracies; two months more in many cases. US workers are starved for more leisure time and will find some way to get it.

When the boss told some of us in the leadership that they’d made a mistake and hadn’t intended including all 13 sick days in the family sick program, we told them in no uncertain terms, “See you in three years at the negotiating table, we’ll talk then” That’s what they used to tell us.

A similar issue has arisen in the ongoing dispute between the transit authority and its employees here in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This blog has many commentaries on this issue under the “BART” label.  The workers at BART, the light rail system here, went back to work last month after two scabs were killed by another one operating a train. The two sides came to an agreement and the bosses got their concessions which was expected given the refusal of the leaders of both the rail and bus system unions to unite all the transit workers and the communities in a wider campaign and joint strike action for more union jobs, increased services, free travel for seniors etc. (see previous blogs).

Members of the unions involved voted to accept the deal and after a contentious summer and two short strikes that revealed the tremendous potential power of organized Labor, everything was supposed to get back to normal. But the bosses are now trying to renege on the agreement saying that one of the tentative agreements they signed was a mistake. “We’ve reviewed the chronology of events concerning section 4.8 and are convinced that it was never the District’s intention to include the disputed Family Medical Leave Act proposal in the contract.” says a BART spokesperson.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, BART workers, as we were, are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid

leave to care for a family member or after the birth of a child etc.  The contract that was accepted by both BART negotiators and the unions included a clause, sect. 4.8, that allowed six weeks of the FMLA’s twelve be paid. On Friday evening, the BART Board of Directors voted 7-1 to send the general manager back to the bargaining table with the unions to work out one final labor issue. 
The union leadership, leaders of SEIU and ATU, are up in arms and denying this was a mistake. “Maybe the people running the District don’t know what they’re doing…” John Arantes, president of the SEIU chapter representing BART workers, told the transit board.  “Now what you have is buyer’s remorse, you bought it and now you want to return it. Well there are no returns.”

The statement from Arantes, an official somewhat closer to the ranks and subject to more internal pressure, stands out when compared to the attorney for SEIU 1021 Kerianne Steele and the Executive Director of SEIU 1021 Pete Castelli.  Steele made it clear that a deal will be made as long as protocol is followed and that means the board signing the contract which they were expected to on November 21st.  Until the contract is signed, “we’re not interested in modifying the language at all”, she told the media. “An agreement is an agreement.”

Castelli told the media that it would likely be a few days before his union made a decision on how to respond and  "We're not ruling anything out, but we're not inclined to go back to the bargaining table,''

These comments show why workers do not need lawyers and so-called high paid union experts negotiating for us or speaking for us.  If we have a contract with an employer, we need legal advice to ensure the words on the page expression our intention.  But we cannot place our faith in lawyers, experts, or the Democratic Party when it comes to our livelihoods. As this blog stressed in previous commentaries, these officials completely failed the workers involved, and future workers, by not preparing for this battle long before negotiations and uniting all transit workers, the unemployed and our communities in a generalized offensive again the power behind the board and its management, the 1%

Whether this was a mistake or not is irrelevant. The bosses are complaining that paying workers under sect 4.8 would cost as much as $44 million. The unions say no more the $5 million.  The two statements by the paid officials of the bureaucracy are weak and intended to let the bosses know that they are willing to make things right for them.

But this struggle is not about money.  The BART board brought in renowned union buster Tom Hock, a major player at the private transport company Veolia. Veolia runs a local transit company for the disabled, MV Transportation where workers earn less pay and receive fewer benefits.  These workers are represented by the Teamsters and those officials have been absent thought this lengthy struggle also, a disgrace.
A BART worker told me today that Veolia was given a retainer of $900,000 to run the scab buses during a BART stoppage and that he thought it was done twice for a total of $1.8 million.  He told me that BART allotted a $21 million fund to run buses during an extended strike, I have not confirmed this.  I have given examples in previous blogs about this summer’s extended transit disputes, when bus drivers also rejected a concessionary contract twice, workers in the same union as the train operators, the Amalgamated Transit Union.

There is talk of yet another strike to defend the contract the bosses want to renege on.  Already, in the mass media, both print and television, the bosses are blaming the workers and getting members of the public to stir up anti-union sentiment.  "I've always thought it was strange that they can strike like this," one BART rider was quoted in the Chronicle as saying, "It throws everything into chaos and everyone doesn't know what they're going to do." Others have made similar statements on television and they should be ashamed of themselves. Of course, the bosses’ media is very selective when it comes to these matters. 

Well, I'm very happy that generations of workers before me were prepared to sacrifice and introduce a little chaos in to the bosses’ profit world, a strike is disruptive, it's true, but that's how progress is made. I am grateful to all those millions who fought for unemployment insurance, the right to sick leave; the right for ordinary workers to sit on a jury free of property qualifications. Thanks to the black youth that fought the state and racists in the Jim Crow south and thanks to our ancestors for winning us the right to form an organization to defend our material interests.

I suggest the reader do a little research and compare benefits workers in other capitalist economies receive.  Workers in the US are among the bottom of the list in practically all categories. The 1%’s politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties will be moving to bar BART workers from striking in the future, they will be working on that in the years ahead.  Getting six days paid leave to care for sick loved one’s is a minor expense compared to their predatory wars and a great victory in this age of defeats; it should be championed. Those who oppose it claiming there is no money, are taking the side of those who place profits above human needs. It should be built on and the defined benefit pensions and public sector security absent in the private should be extended to all workers. Health care, education, leisure time, public services, these should all be expanded to all American workers.

While the gains that could have been made this summer weren’t, the bosses never had an easy time of it; even the Union officialdom could not throw in the towel so easily. In Seattle, Boeing workers are not making it so easy either.  All across the country there is definitely a shift in the mood as workers both on the job, in the communities and in the electoral plane are fighting back as the election of Kshawa Sawant, an open socialist to Seattle City Council shows.

The logjam is beginning to clear a little. We have to raise our expectations.

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