Tales from the tracks

BART strikes are on hold, but the standoff between workers — demonized by many, humanized here — and the district continues

Robert Bright
Photo by Mark Mosher/SEIU 1021


BART's trains will keep running, for now, after a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordered the 60-day cooling-off period that Gov. Jerry Brown was angling for last week to address BART's labor contract impasse. The injunction is in effect until Oct. 10, blocking any strike or lockout until then.

A report by the Bay Area Council said that the four-day strike in early July cost the Bay Area $73 million a day. That estimate was also a conservative one, according to a report put together by a special investigative board convened by Brown to look into the brinkmanship between BART workers and management.

"All parties agree that the major issues of the negotiations remain unresolved, including wages, health benefits, pensions contributions, and workplace safety," the Aug. 8 report said.

Aside from the nitty gritty of the contracts, the two parties can't even agree on math. The report found that the "parties do not agree on the magnitude of the gap in their respective economic proposals," and that they are between $56 and $62 million apart on their forecasts of district finances for the next three years.

Management's biggest concerns are still capital investments. Last year, BART approved a contract for 410 new cars, at a cost of about $2.2 million per car. The union's proposals leave little room for capital improvements, BART management said at the Aug. 8 investigatory hearing.

But the unions say that BART is financially healthy and can offer a decent contract to workers. Out of a budget of $1.5 billion, union officials say payroll for their members totals about $200 million.

The unions and management will now have two months to cool off. But will that help along their negotiations? SEIU Local 1021, which represents engineers and custodial workers, doesn't seem to think so.

"We have bargained unsuccessfully with this employer from May 13 to June 30, 2013 with no true indication from the district that it intended to reach an agreement," the unions wrote in a letter to the investigative board. "We have no reason to believe that if a 60 day cooling off period were created, we would not be standing then on the precipice of another work stoppage without an agreement."

Meanwhile, to put a human face on a labor standoff that has provoked sometimes nasty reactions from the public, we ran a couple profiles of BART workers on the SFBG.com Politics blog last week. The response was so passionate and overwhelming, we decided to run them in the paper as well:



First we met Robert Earl Bright, a 47-year-old transit vehicle mechanic at the Hayward yards, where he's been for three years. BART trains seem tame compared to the machines he used to work with, starting out as an Air Force mechanic working on cargo planes.

It's that experience he draws from when he said BART's policies are becoming increasingly dangerous.

Bright is tall but soft-spoken, and while we sat at a bench in a courtyard at Lake Merritt BART station, he talked about the shortcuts BART has taken lately, and how overtime and consolidation are bad practices for everyone involved.

There used to be specific workers called Power & Way controllers who looked out for workers on the train tracks and made sure they were safe, he said, but those responsibilities were consolidated into a separate train controller position. Since then, Bright saw the death of a colleague, a mechanic who switched from a graveyard shift to a day shift and was hit by an oncoming train.

Only after the death did BART take steps to ensure parts of the track where there was less clearance safe from trains were marked, he said.