Cooling down BART and the unions

The Political Circus

The BART strike that ended earlier this week was both unfortunate and unacceptable. And although the crisis is over, the unions and BART management need to take action to prevent such wide-scale disruptions of mass transit in the future.

During the previous strike, BART unions stopped transit for four days, costing the Bay Area $292 million in business and affecting the more than 400,000 commuters BART carries on a typical workday. The tensions ran so high, in fact, that Gov. Jerry Brown had to institute a 60-day “cooling-off” period in August to avert further strikes. This period expired this month and precipitated the strike we experienced earlier this week.

What’s perhaps strangest about the BART strike is that the management had taken steps to prevent strikes from happening in the first place. Section 1.6 of the 2009-13 contract for Amalgamated Transit Union Unit 1555 reads:

“NO STRIKES AND NO LOCKOUTS; A. It is the intent of the District and the Unions to assure uninterrupted transit service to the public during the life of this Agreement. Accordingly, No employee or Unions signatory hereto shall engage in, cause or encourage any strike, slowdown, picketing, concerted refusal to work, or other interruption of the District’s operations for the duration of this Agreement as a result of any labor dispute.”

And yet, once the contract expired at the end of June, unions were no longer bound by the no-strike clause in their contracts, allowing them to strike the very next day. Legislation proposed by Bob Huff, a Republican in the state Senate, would have forced BART employees to honor the no-strike obligation in their current contracts.

This isn’t a new idea — especially for public unions. Police officers and firefighters are not legally allowed to strike because of the massive public safety hazard such a strike would cause. Technically, BART employees do not bear the same responsibilities as police and firefighters, and their strikes do not pose as much danger to the public, but they are nevertheless essential to the day-to-day activities of a city. The BART strikes had an impact on public safety that made daily life more hazardous for Bay Area residents, and 400,000 riders who would normally have taken BART to work piled onto buses or ferries or found themselves stuck behind the wheel in nightmarish traffic. The metering lights on the Bay Bridge were turned on at 5:35 in order to regulate traffic when they normally wouldn’t have been turned on until at least 6, if at all. Tim Solverson, an Oakland resident riding a ferry, summed up the mood, remarking, “If I could swing it, I would never ride BART again. I make $20,000 a year less than BART workers. I think this is crazy. This should be illegal. I work hard too. This is a public service, and they need to take us into account, and they don’t.”

Although many Bay Area residents are angry about the strike — even angry enough to consider a ban on public transit strikes — such an action would undermine the very purpose of unions, which are designed to protect employees as best as possible. By taking away the right to strike, unions would be helpless in preventing unsafe work environments, which relates directly to what happened earlier this week, when a train operated by an inexperienced trainee ran over two BART workers, killing both. And so the unions’ demands for control over safety regulations — the issue that precipitated the most recent strike — do not seem to be entirely unreasonable. But that does not mean they should not respect the very real power they wield with the threat of a strike.

Public transit unions need to realize their strikes cause massive harm to local economies, and they need to wield their power responsibly. The recent BART shutdown shows unions have too much power — nobody should be allowed to completely shut down public transit so vital to an area’s commerce. But at the same time, completely banning strikes isn’t the answer either. That would only eliminate the incentive for management to negotiate fairly when extending contracts. But by mandating a six-month period for good-faith negotiations — during which the unions agree not to strike — we could help minimize the number of day-to-day transit disruptions while still giving management a reason to end negotiations before it reaches binding arbitration, which BART management sought to avoid this year.

It’d be a perfect balance between an ineffective status quo and a too-extreme knee-jerk reaction to the most recent BART strikes. Let’s hope they agree to it.

Kevin Gu writes the Thursday column on politics. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @gukevin888.