We need to hold inept managers accountable for BART impasse

Yi Zhong/Staff

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It’s 8 p.m. Sunday night, June 30, 2013.

We just found out that the BART negotiators had no further proposals to present.

Paper in hand, we did the math. The last offer they left on the table meant a cut of more than 12 percent in take pay per year — times four years. This is the offer that we faced after four years of zero wage increases, four years of BART budget surpluses and an increase in ridership of more than 11 percent.

On June 25, the BART unions voted by an overwhelming 98.6 percent to authorize a strike under these conditions.

What were we to do? In addition to the economics, the district rejected the union’s safety proposals (which included safety lighting and reopening the public restrooms in the underground stations), and they also left their draconian management rights proposals on the table (such as invasive sick-leave procedures and unilateral changes to job descriptions).

These negotiations weren’t supposed to happen this way. We did everything that we could to prevent a strike. We got started with the process early. Our researchers began in October 2012 — the bargaining team, back in December. Despite our best efforts, the district stonewalled us and left us with only seven weeks to bargain the contract.

BART’s relationship with its unions has always been contentious. Sixteen years ago, when I began working at BART, I was told, firstly, to save my money, because we were going on strike (the 1997 strike). Then, I was told to keep in mind that the district (management) could never be trusted.

I was advised about how to perform my job within the framework of the BART system. How to get things done by calling on another Union Brother or Sister. They would be the ones to advise me about how to access the stations after dark, how to keep safe (by riding in the first transit vehicle at night), where to park my car, where to get a meal at 2 a.m., which high-rail vehicles I should request in order to perform preventive maintenance safely inside the transbay tube, etc. Most importantly, I was warned to never, never, ever trust that management would be there for me if I got into any trouble.

The BART transit system is the ultimate experiment in collaboration. Every station, every shop and jurisdiction operates as a separate entity and has its own flavor. The unions are the glue that connects this system. Going through the recent media, there is an underlying misconception that the BART system is a well-tuned, high-tech, well-managed transit system. BART promotes a vision that it has a clear understanding of how to get things accomplished, that all systems are lined up for productivity — all they really need is a flexible work force.

In my 25 years prior to coming to BART, I’ve never seen an organization with a more “exactly incompetent” managerial staff. The truth is that they rely heavily on manual procedures, institutional history and the discretionary passion of individual workers. So much of the system has never been documented. Contractors come and go without a trace, leaving regular workers to do forensics and reverse engineering in order to keep the system going.

Back to negotiations. The last few months have been an exercise in futility. This dispute is not about economics; it’s about breaking the unions. The new general manager and the negotiator that she hired for $400,000 has a history in transit labor relations that does not bode well for the unions.

Still, there is purity in the way that they are coming at us. They simply do not care. Our strength is our ability to withhold labor, so they respond by creating an untenable situation,and forcing us out on strike. They know that a successful strike takes planning and organization,and that due to the steady decline of organized labor in the private sector, the pressure will be heavily upon the unions.

The theory is this: If we go out on strike, we will lose money. BART will continue to beat us up in the press in order to break our resolve. When the workers come back, they will be angry.  It is management’s plan that that anger should be directed toward the union. To bolster the plan, they will blatantly violate the contract. They will retaliate and disrespect any union leader who showed any kind of backbone during the strike. They will resolve issues only with sycophants and toadies and will seek to exhaust the union’s resources by tying it up in grievances, arbitrations and court actions.

Brothers and sisters, on midnight of June 30, we, the BART workers, were a force to reckon with. We rose up in defense of all working people against capitalism. As the strongest, most powerful transit union in the United States, on Independence Day of 2013, we had our boot on the neck of the dragon, but we didn’t finish the job. For various reasons (to be discussed over a beer later), we let up.

The BART unions still do not have a contract; we have another deadline of midnight, August 4, and recent history is repeating itself. If and when we go out on strike again, it has to be different. Working people and youth are under attack everywhere. We need to join forces to protect and improve the standard of living for all working people in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

Please join the BART unions and the ILWU for All Out August 1 in Oakland for a labor solidarity rally to stop attacks on BART transit workers and all employer attacks on unions.

Rhea Davis is a 16-year BART electronic technician and the BART chapter vice president of SEIU 1021.