Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BART: union leaders look to courts to save one bright spot in concessionary deal

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

We have heard very little in the media about the ongoing dispute between the local transit authority here and the unions representing workers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) the light rail system serving much of the San Francisco Bay Area. 

After two short strikes and dominating the mass media throughout the summer, the dispute was settled after two scabs were killed while working on BART tracks. But before the transit board signed the agreement accepted by both the unions and management, they decided that a clause already agreed to had to go, so they accepted the contract minus the clause.

It was a mistake the bosses said and blamed it on an “error by a temporary employee”. That’s nice of them, one of their employees with the least rights.  Mind you, BART’s “top negotiators” had already signed off on the deal.  And these top negotiators were experts. The district even brought in a well known union busting character from the private sector to ensure the BART workers were taken down a peg and the transit district was willing to force them out on strike to do that.

The controversial clause was an agreement that 6 weeks of the 12 weeks allowed workers by the Family Medical Leave Act would be paid.  The FMLA allows workers time to spend with sick family members or to bond with a newborn child for example but it is unpaid leave.  The US is light years behind other industrial democracies when it comes to benefits like these. "District negotiators would never have knowingly agreed to such a financially backbreaking proposal." BART spokesperson Alicia Trost announced in the media. The bosses are claiming such a provision would cost $44 million.

The two largest unions representing BART workers, SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 have filed a lawsuit claiming that the district’s board of directors broke state law by approving parts of an agreed contract they like but removing a provision they didn’t.

Union officials are willing to meet with management but BART has not ‘reached out” to them, SEIU’s chief negotiator told the media. They are willing to help find solutions to the problem once the contract as agreed to is signed.

"BART has never offered to us to negotiate over this supposed mistake.” Says Kerianne Steele, SEIU 1021's attorney

Throughout this entire period, the past six months or so, the leaders of the Unions involved have made every effort to compromise and each time they’ve been shot down.  They made it clear from the very beginning that if they could just be left with what they have (or their members could) they would go away.  It is the same old tune.  The heads of organized Labor are wed to the Team Concept, the view that bosses and workers have the same interest;, it is impossible to fight back with this world-view.  During this entire period, numerous public sector unions were in contract talks and could legally strike yet there was no effort on the part of Labor's leadership in this area to unite these forces, draw in the communtiies we serve by fighting for jobs higher wages and better benefits for all and increased services for the communities, using the strike weapon to win these demands. Just the opposite was the case with BART as the ATU leadership of one local had its members scab on the other.

The members and workers in general instinctively resist the austerity agenda of the capitalist offensive and this resistance has to be undermined by the union officials as it threatens their world-view.  They have to suppress any movement from within their ranks that threatens this relationship they have with the bosses; organizing this anger, mobilizing the potential power of labor can only lead to chaos as they see it.

In this instance they are quite prepared to address management’s concerns, make some compromise if they’d only sign the damn contract.   But the bosses don’t fear them. Why should they?  So the union officials enter the arena where the bosses rule, the courts. If bourgeois justice worked, we would have never had to have the battles and near civil war scenarios we had in this country over the right to a union, the right to collectively bargain.  If their justice worked, the prisons would not be full of workers that capitalism refuses to put to work, instead, most of the members of Congress would be in jail along with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, our friend Obama and the notorious war criminal, Henry Kissinger.

The union officials have been pretty silent about this provision that allows a human being time with loved ones during a time of need without losing one’s job and without losing pay.  Instead it should be a rallying cry. It is a great victory salvaged out of a generally mediocre concessionary deal.  It should be held up as an example of what all workers should have and the transit unions and the entire local and national Labor movement should take this opportunity to make this happen.

Of course, we know they won’t do this for the reasons I have already outlined here, but this is yet another opportunity lost if rank and file workers don’t move in this direction, don’t draw the conclusion that we have to build fighting rank and file caucuses based on opposition to the Team Concept and with an anti-austerity agenda and a direct action strategy that can drive back the capitalist offensive and change the direction of organized labor along with its present leadership.

The two sides here are arguing over the cost of this provision but this too is a mistake, this is a minor detail. As Darwin Bond Graham commented in an East Bay Express article earlier this year, “Property taxes make up less than 5 percent of BART's budget, even though the system's impact on real estate values in a few Bay Area hotspots has been immense.”

This publicly funded transit has delivered millions of workers to workplaces particularly in downtown San Francisco and other financial and industrial areas.  This is bringing labor power to the bosses, a valuable service as it is the source of their profit. They don't rely on private enterprise to bring labor power to the workplace, the taxpayer does it for practically nothing. In addition, land and corporate buildings around BART stations has skyrocketed in value due to this publicly funded transit system affecting sales and rents; it’s been a great gift to the corporations.

Even this is a detail. I am certainly not the only one to have pointed out the vast amount of money sloshing around in society.  Leaving aside trillions wasted on the wars and other predatory adventures fought on behalf of the corporations, there is $3 trillion or so being hoarded by business as its not profitable to invest in production or social infrastructure.  There is another $26 to $32 trillion stashed away in offshore bank accounts by the global super rich.

So it’s not a question of lack of funds it is simply the allocation of society’s resources. Even with public entities like transit, these agencies are still governed and directed by representatives of one of the two Wall Street parties or bourgeois parties if you like and as agents of the 1% their job is to ensure that the working class pay. We have to have an independent political voice and an independent movement that can challenge the dictatorship capital has over society.

Six weeks off with pay to care for sick family members or to welcome a newborn in to the world. 

Now that’s something to be proud of. That's progress.

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