We needed the BART strike

BAY AREA AFFAIRS: Because of the impasse in negotiations, BART workers had no choice other than striking to win necessary workplace reform

The recently concluded BART strike, although inconvenient for Bay Area commuters and costly to the local economy, was an action unfortunately made necessary by last week’s impasse in negotiations.

BART’s management and the unions, who appeared to be far apart with their final offers on pay increases, employee health care contributions and workplace safety rules, seemed to be moving toward a resolution in the hours leading up to the strike. Near the last minute, however, something changed.

On the issue of workplace safety, BART resisted compromise. The unions proposed that both sides take their case to binding arbitration, which would then resolve the dispute over safety rules and regulations at a later date. This wholly reasonable proposal was rejected outright by management, an action reflecting an earlier quote from a spokesperson calling the disagreement over workplace safety a “smoke screen.”

Given the context surrounding the union’s decision to strike, there was no other way for BART workers get a fair deal. And based on the details made public about the contours of the final agreement — including new bulletproof glass for station agents and better lighting — the strike was successful in getting BART workers a safer working environment.

Despite this, however, some critics of the unions still believe the transit strike was an expensive and damaging overreaction, and that BART workers and management should have been forced to come to a resolution without the strike.

Orinda City Councilmember Steve Glazer and State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, have both publicly flirted with the idea of banning transit worker strikes in the Bay Area. San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz went even further, with an outright endorsement of such a measure. The basis? He cited the Bay Area’s “transit first” focus, and the cost to the regional economy of a transit strike. The only shown basis of these claims is a comparison of BART and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

While the damage to the Bay Area economy is not to be taken lightly, there is little evidence to substantiate claims that the bay’s “transit-first” nature justifies taking away the one piece of leverage that unions have during negotiations. As Oakland journalist Susie Cagle details in a thoughtful blog post, the Bay is hardly the public transportation heaven that the Chronicle makes it out to be.

Cagle points out that BART provides 400,000 rides per day for a population of roughly 5.9 million people, which amounts to around 6.8 percent of Bay Area residents using BART once a day. New York, by comparison, provides 8.7 million rides per day for a population of 8.3 million, and Chicago’s public transit system currently supports 729,000 rides per day for 2.7 million people. The Bay Area, as the numbers show, is no transit mecca.

Additionally, a strike ban would remove any leverage unions have during contract discussions. While the damage to the Bay Area economy — an estimated $73 million per day — is not insubstantial, the fact that BART workers can cause so much damage in the first place with a strike demonstrates the importance of ensuring BART management remains a good-faith negotiating partner during contract discussions.

Dismissing BART workers’ concerns as ancillary to ensuring a functioning transportation system or asserting that they are overpaid misses the point; a place as progressive as the Bay Area should be proud that we are able to pay our public employees to match ever-increasing cost of living expenses. Having a fairly compensated public payroll is an accomplishment, particularly for an agency like BART.

And to repeat — it was only because of the strike that BART workers were able to get the changes necessary to return to work. Not in spite of them.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this editorial implied that BART was profitable. In fact, according to numbers from 2012, the transit agency yielded more in revenue than expected, partly because of increases in tax revenue.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this editorial incorrectly referred to a column by San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz as an editorial board endorsement.