Why BART workers should stop complaining

Notes from Underground

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For Berkeley students and Bay Area residents in general, the BART strike was a major inconvenience. Most of us don’t drive, and even those who do prefer to use public transportation over long distances. As such, it’s not uncommon to think that the unions have the upper hand in this negotiation.

Yet nothing has been resolved since unionized BART employees went on strike last Monday. This is due to the fact that the unions have overestimated their leverage. A strike needs at least one of the following two factors in order to be impactful: inelastic demand for the suspended service or overwhelming public support.

On the surface, it would seem that the first factor is a given. However, Bay Area workers are speedy adapters. Most have chosen to use alternatives like carpooling, ferry, AC Transit bus and even Google bus to get into the city and back. Some have also opted to telecommute from home to avoid road congestion.

Perhaps the reason the public has adapted so quickly is that most of us are unsympathetic to the unionized workers’ cause. And it’s hardly surprising once we’ve looked at the numbers. BART workers are among the highest paid in transportation services. On average, BART operators of automated trains earn $30.22 per hour. Their work week only requires 37.5 hours, so a 40-hour schedule already has 2.5 hours of overtime built in. They only pay $92 a month toward their medical insurance plans, regardless of family size. They contribute nothing to their pension plan. Finally, there’s no limit to how much vacation time they can accrue (two years after she was forced to resign, former general manager Dorothy Dugger was still the top earner on BART’s payroll because she was cashing out 3,100 hours of unused time off). It’s no wonder that some Berkeley students have volunteered to fill in the vacancies — even a Cal degree will not usually earn you $30.22 per hour at the entry level!

Despite unfavorable support, the unions still refuse to budge unless BART agrees to give its workers a 4.5 percent raise per year for the next three years in addition to better healthcare and pension plans.

Meanwhile, BART’s management has agreed to double the original proposal to an 8 percent raise — 5 percent would be unconditional and 3 percent conditional on whether workers agree to pay more for their healthcare and pension.

With top state officials stepping in as mediators, BART employees have resumed work on Friday. However, another strike is inevitable if an agreement cannot be reached by Aug. 4.

Until then, here is some advice for both parties. First, the board of directors needs to seriously apply stricter scrutiny on employee benefits — we didn’t vote for these board members only to have them squander our tax money! Second, the unions need to wake up and take a look at the real world. Sure, the economy has recovered, but it’s far from being stable. Many people in the private sector have not received a raise in five years (cost-of-living adjustment excluded), so public servants should not be the first to complain. After all, the ones who are most affected by this strike are the low- and middle-income classes, who rely mainly on public transportation. In other words, the unions are hurting those they claim to help! It would be helpful if they can remember what former president Franklin D. Roosevelt said when he forbade public employees to join unions: “The employer is the whole people.”

Image source: acidhelm via Creative Commons

Anh Thai ponders about insidious world problems in her Tuesday blog. Contact Anh Thai at [email protected]