Last train - Page 2

BART standoff has national implications in an age of wealth and austerity

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BART emplyees picket on the corner of Market and Montgomery on Moday. July 1
PHOTO BY ALEX LEBER

So in that context, BART's battle is about more than just the wages and benefits of train drivers and station agents, with their average base salary of $62,000, just barely above the area median income, and their demand for raises after accepting wage freezes in recent years.

Daly sees this as part of a much broader political standoff, and he said there are indications that BART management also sees it that way, starting with the $399,000 the transit agency is paying its lead negotiator Thomas Hock, a veteran of union-busting standoffs around the country.

"He has a history of bargaining toward strikes, with the goal of breaking unions," Daly said, noting that Hock's opening offer would have taken money from BART employees, with new pension and healthcare contributions outweighing raises. "It was a takeaway proposal when you add it up, while they have a $100 million surplus in their budget and the cost of living in the Bay Area is shooting up."

But BART spokesperson Rick Rice told us that Hock is simply trying to get the best deal possible for this taxpayer-funded agency, and he denied there is any intention to break the union or connection to some larger anti-worker agenda.

"There is definitely a need to start funding the capital needs of the district," Rice told us. "I don't see that we're pushing an austerity agenda as much as a realistic agenda."

 

AUSTERITY AND EXPANSION

But Daly said the very idea that austerity measures are "realistic" excuses the banks and other powerful players whose reckless pursuit of profits caused the financial meltdown of 2008. The underlying expectation is that workers should continue to pay for that debacle, rather than bouncing back with the rebounding economy.

"They get in this austerity mindset, and we see it in every contract we're negotiating," Daly said, noting that capital needs and benefits have always needed funding, despite their elevation now as immediate imperatives. "You have good people with good intentions like [BART Board President] Tom Radulovich pushing this austerity mindset."

Radulovich, a longtime progressive activist, told us he agrees with some of how Daly is framing the standoff, but not all of it. He said that BART is being squeezed into its position by unique factors.

Radulovich said that healthcare and pension costs really are rising faster then ever, creating a challenge in maintaining those benefit levels. And he said that Hock isn't simply carrying out some larger anti-union agenda. "He's negotiating what the district wants him to negotiate," he said.

Radulovich said that while BART's workers may deserve raises, most of BART's revenues come from fares. "So it's taking from workers to give to other workers," Radulovich said. "It's a little more complicated because it is a public agency and Chris is aware of that."

Yet Radulovich acknowledged that BART has opted to pursue an aggressive expansion policy that is diverting both capital and operating expenditures into new lines — such as the East Contra Costa, Oakland Airport, and Warm Springs extensions now underway — rather than setting some of that money aside for workers.

"And for a lot of those, we were being cheered on by the [San Francisco] Labor Council, one of many ironies," said Radulovich, who favors infill projects over new extensions. "These are some of the conversations I've had with labor leaders in the last few weeks, how we think strategically about these things."

But if BART wanted to defeat the union, it may have miscalculated the level of worker discontent with austerity measures.

"What they didn't plan on is some high-level Bay Area political pressure," Daly said, referring to the local uproar over the strike that led Gov. Jerry Brown to send in the state's two top mediators, who made progress and created a one month cooling off period before the strike can resume.