Last week's four-day strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers dominated the news and made headlines around the country, marking the latest battleground in a national war between public employee unions and the austerity agenda pushed by conservatives and neoliberals.
Of course, that wasn't how the conflict was framed by BART, most journalists, or even the two BART unions involved, all of whom dutifully reported the details of each sides' offers and counter-offers, the competing "safety" narratives (new security procedures demands by unions versus spending more on capital improvements than raises), and the strike's impact on commuters and the local economy.
But once this long-simmering labor standoff seized the attention of a public heavily reliant on BART, fueling the popular anger and resentment increasingly directed at public employee unions in recent years, familiar basic storylines emerged.
At that point, the Bay Area could have been placed in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, or Illinois — the most recent high-profile labor union battlegrounds, with their narratives of greedy public employees clinging to their fully funded pensions and higher than average salaries while the rest of us suffer through this stubbornly lingering hangover from the Great Recession.
Around water coolers and online message boards, there were common refrains: How dare those unions demand the raises that the rest of us are being denied! Pensions? Who has fully funded pensions anymore? Why can't they just be more realistic?
When Bay Area residents were finally forced to find other ways of getting around, within a transportation system that is already at the breaking point during peak hours thanks to years of austerity budgets and under-investment in basic infrastructure, those seething resentments exploded into outright anger.
And those political dynamics could only get worse in a month. The BART strike could resume full strength on a non-holiday workweek if the two sides aren't able to come to an agreement before the recently extended contract expires.
This is the Bay Area's most visible and impactful labor standoff, and it could prove to be a pivotal one for the modern American labor movement.
BART AS BELLWETHER
Chris Daly was a clarion voice for progressive values while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2000-2010. Now, as political director of Service Employee International Union Local 1021, one of the BART unions, he says this standoff is about more than just the issues being discussed at the bargaining table.
"The terms and conditions of workers in the public sector is a buoy for other workers," Daly told us, explaining how everyone's wages and benefits tend to follow the gains and setbacks negotiated by unions. "The right understands this, which is why the right has been mercilessly attacking public sector workers."
Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, confirmed that union contracts affect the overall labor market. "When unions improve wages and benefits, it does have a ripple effect," Jacobs said. He agreed that the outcome at BART could be a bellwether for the question, "As the economy comes back, how much will workers share in that prosperity?"
Demonizing public sector workers as greedy or lazy also serves to undercut the entire labor movement, Daly said, considering that public employees make up a far higher percentage of union members than their private sector counterparts. And during election time, it is union money and ground troops that typically contest wealthy individuals and corporations' efforts to maintain or expand power.
"Labor is one of the main checks on unbridled corporate power, and public sector unions are the backbone of labor," Daly told us.