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.


401(K) BAD BAD

Gold-plated defined-benefit pension plans GOOD GOOD

We should all have the latter. California may have $4 trillion in underfunded pension obligations to its public-sector employees, but that's a debt BART riders and citizens will have to pay. Tough luck.

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 16, 2013 @ 9:32 am
Posted by anon on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

don't you understand?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

It therefore requires a subsidy from the taxpayers. There is no surplus but, if there was one, then it should be paid back to the taxpayers.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

BART is not running a surplus.

The $120 million the union keeps parading is from the investment returns in 2012 alone.

Instead, you ought to look at the NEGATIVE returns between 2000-2010...

...and weep.

Posted by Anon on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

pay for much of the BART costs anyway.

Repay the taxpayers before giving BART workers an extra penny.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

Yes, Pete doesn't do the numbers thing. He doesn't do the objective-evidence thing.

But he does feel the pain for a BART employee with an annual $127K compensation package. Because we should all be public employees. We should all get free healthcare. We should all be able to retire at 58 on good pensions. What do you have against that?

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 15, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

But we cannot because we cannot afford to.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

No one should have it better than me!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

"What dollar figure would you say justifies saying BART workers are paid too little?"

I'd say $50,000 would be too little.

$117K is too much, especially considering that they don't have to cover any of their own pension costs (us plebes pay at least the 7.5% for SS), and they get full health coverage for themselves and all dependents for $92 a month even after they retire.

That's a sweeeet deal, Pete. Admit it.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 15, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

Interesting that the politicians are completely mum on the BART situation. They want it to quietly go away.

They know that the public is against the BART strikers.

But they also know the hand that feeds them.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 15, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

Can you believe the audacity? Phyllis claims she made $52k. And her base was $52k. But $38k in OT that seems to have escaped her? Plus plus plus the benefits.

Shame Shame Shame. What a crock. BART workers are as deceitful as they come. Plus she applies for another job the offers are $30k. No benefits.

Stand up against this. Real working people will have to pay the fare increases to fund BART raises.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 15, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

One really, really nice perk for BART employees is that the taxpayers pay the union representatives' salaries.

That's right folks. Union rep salaries are not paid for by BART employees. They are paid for by taxpayers. Here's one!"

Saul Almanza, Employee Dev Specialist - SEIU
$85,877 base salary
$833 overtime
$3,732 Other Lump sum payout: vac, sick, comp or buyout
$23,364 Medical, for self and dependents
$10,361 ER Employer contribution to pension
$6,116 Employer contribution to deferred comp
$2,158 Misc Other non-cash paid costs of employment

This union rep is on the BART payroll, with a sweet six-figure salary. One of several.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Aug. 16, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

"All employees everywhere, private or public sector, have a cost to their employer past their base salary."

Yes, but all employees elsewhere pay 7.5% of their wages into Security. And all employees elsewhere can only build their pensions through defined-contribution pension plans (401-K), that pay only what the investments generage.

BART and other public-sector workers (and the 1%-ers) have defined-benefit pension plans that GUARANTEE annual returns of 8%. And these are underfunded by $4 trillion in California.

This is what is going to bankrupt the state eventually

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 9:21 am
Posted by Guest on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

If these are the best examples you could find to make the pitch for our sympathy I am not sure why you bothered.
Anyone that takes the elevators at Powell st knows they are some of the filthiest ones in the system. The only other elevators that are sometimes worse are the ones at 16th. (coincidence or incompetence?)
I have actually written BART about the nasty Powell platform elevator. It is that bad!
And as far as the mechanic. I am sure he does his job well with the tools he is given. But it really is not up to anybody else to provide for his family. We all have our burdens to bear in that regard. That he is attempting to provide for not only his children, but his childrens children is great. But this is hardly the responsibility of his employer, that employees should be able to pay for a roof over their heads and have disposable income is equitable. That they should make enough to carry their entire family is not.

Posted by Calaverasgrande on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 11:43 am

their elevators and escalators are filthy as an argument that we should pay them more. We should, of course, pay them less.

Posted by anon on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

"The database constructed by the San Jose Mercury News lists a BART employee's full cost to the taxpayer — often at around $100,000. This is their "cost" to BART, not the wages they take home, a common mistake regularly made by angry online commenters. All employees everywhere, private or public sector, have a cost to their employer past their base salary."

That's highly deceptive. That 50% added costs takes into account back-office, human resources, and other costs that support an enterprise's operations. These are not factored into the BART compensation in the SJ Mercury database. If they were, the BART compensation would be even higher.

As noted here already, BART workers have gold-plated defined-benefit pension packages that they can begin tapping into at the age of 55.

And the 0% that BART workers pay into their pensions defies credibility even by public-sector standards. At least MUNI workers cover 7.5% of their own pension costs.

BART employees pay 0% into their pensions

Posted by Anon on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

the fact that they cannot understand why they're not getting much public support.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

I gather these "profiles" didn't mention the 40 days of the year these folks take in unscheduled absences i.e. gaming the overtime system calling in sick. What heroes.

Headline story in LA TIMES today about the DWP raising rates on the poor while its employees pay nothing for health care. Let's be clear - public employee greed is not limited to BART. It's a cancer throughout our state. Maybe people are waking up...?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

Robert Earl Bright, who is a 47-year-old transit vehicle mechanic, is against excessive overtime. He's talking about safety. I like this!

I feel better when BART's employees are concerned about safety and the well-being of the riding public. I also like it when they want to reopen the bathrooms, for public convenience -- this is long overdue. Why hasn't the management taken the initiative on this?

Posted by Guest Arnold Schoen on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

That cuz management be evil. This is a good (BART workers) vs. evil (management) narrative folks.

Posted by Anon on Aug. 18, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

These unsustainable defined-benefit pension plans for BART and other public employees will mean 1) higher taxes for us all, 2) increasing costs for services (or reduced services in many areas), or 3) higher pension and healthcare costs to be paid by BART employees.

It will probably mean all three, unfortunately.

Let's hope that BART employees will finally come to understand that they have to start covering some of their own pension/healthccare costs.

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 17, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

No one should have it better than me! These BART workers should be arrested and taken out back. It is outrageous that they want to maintain decent pay, decent retirement and decent healthcare for their families! Who do they think they are, bankers? We need to race to the bottom for all middle class jobs to make sure we stay competitive with the third world.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

No one has it better than them, and the rest of the us pay for it.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

No, the two BART workers profiled in the article AREN'Tearning salaries of $91K and $124K. The "BART workers are paid too much" crowd have been using half-truths to confuse the situation.


"Making" so much from salaried employment means the base amount you know you're getting paid for your labor. In real terms, it's the money that you earn before taxes and your contributions to your medical plan take a bite out of your paycheck. It's also the money that winds up getting direct deposited to your bank account...if you're lucky to have one.

The trolls have not shown how BART's contribution to their employees' vision plan gives the employees money in hand to buy a cup of coffee. As far as I'm concerned, these contributions are extra financial incentives to keep BART's workers healthy and working for them. It's not money that the workers are getting to directly access right now, right this moment.

I don't dispute the overtime costs the two BART workers profiled have earned. BUT read again what Bright said. BART management figured it's cheaper to pay ovetime for their existing workers to work longer hours. Extra employees may spread the work around. But the health and retirement costs for these extra employees would add up. So I don't buy any claim that these workers' overtime costs demonstrates that they're gaming the pay system.

In the end, I pity the commenters attacking the BART workers. It'd be nice if they looked at what the BART workers accomplished with their union and said, "Hey, why don't we get our workplaces to offer some of these same or better benefits?" I'd also be impressed if the anger they expended here got directed at, say, the Wall Street financiers who have still gone unpunished for cratering the US economy in 2007-2008. Otherwise, their misplaced anger is only regrettable.

Posted by Peter on Aug. 22, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

It matters how much it costs to employ them. Why? Because if it were cheaper to pay contractors more because they do not get benefits, then we should do that.

You are there to do a job and what matters therefore is what you cost not what you net.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 22, 2013 @ 4:11 pm


The comment of "Guest" (aka Wimp #1) is precisely the sort of race to the bottom mentality that's made America a marvel of income inequality. I'm sure the family that owns Wal-Mart shares your attitude about worker relations.

Posted by Peter on Aug. 23, 2013 @ 8:56 am

The US is not rich enough to pay everyone $100k, let alone janitors $125k.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 23, 2013 @ 9:33 am

and have free pensions and healthcare. Nobody has to pay in la-la land.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 23, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

Sigh. Contractors cost more, get less done and usually have to be trained by regular employees. Contractors allow more opportunity for malfeasance, kickbacks, lack of oversight, nepotism and general poor business practices.

What actually matters, genius, is if the work gets done.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 30, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

As a SF city employee I pay 7% of my income into retirement. My employer currently pays nothing. My SFERs is not being paid for by you, neither will it bankrupt CA. No matter when I started working, I cannot retire with full benefits until I am 65. I am the taxpayer who will probably be paying for the retirees with 401ks that got screwed by their employees. Don't hate me, hate the system that allows CEOs and admin
to be so outrageously overpaid for doing very little.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 30, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Also from this author

  • Poll says SF loves tech buses, doesn't ask Spanish speakers

  • Boom for whom?

    Why isn't San Francisco's hot economy creating a budget surplus to address its costly byproducts?

  • A fine dilemma

    Increased citations often hinder homeless youth from finding better life