BART workers authorize strike


Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version.

Bay Area Rapid Transit workers, whose contract expires June 30, have authorized a strike if negotiations with the transit agency do not result in renewed contract terms that are acceptable to both sides.

“They just announced it. Both unions overwhelmingly supported a strike vote,” Leah Berlanga, chief negotiating officer for Service Employees International Union 1021, told the Guardian in a phone call this morning. Votes were cast yesterday, and the results have just come in.

SEIU represents about 1,400 BART inspectors and maintenance workers. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which has also voted to authorize a strike, represents BART drivers.

For now, Berlanga said, SEIU and ATU remain at the negotiating table, and “we’re just focusing on reaching an agreement.” The contract is valid throughout June 30, so the earliest the transit workers could go out on strike would be Monday morning.

Contentious issues in the contract negotiations include workers' request for raises, which haven't been granted in years despite an uptick in ridership, and the agency's insistence that employees pick up a share of their pension contributions.

Union representatives have emphasized that their primary concern is worker safety. Last week, SEIU filed an unfair practices labor lawsuit alleging that BART was not negotiating in good faith, pointing to worker safety as a central concern. “We’ve been talking about health and safety for the last four years. By law, health and safety is a mandatory subject of bargaining. Management has rejected every proposal we’ve put forward that addresses safety, and they are not bargaining in good faith,” Berlanga said. On June 25, unionized workers and supporters held a press conference outside the 24th Street BART station, nearby where an employee was struck and killed by a train in 2001. SEIU representatives have said this death was preventable, blaming it on poor lighting inside BART tunnels.

Antonette Bryant, president of ATU 1555, also emphasized safety issues. “We've had over 1,000 passengers assaulted and 99 workers assaulted,” she told the Guardian. “That's something that we take very seriously. We want our work environment and riding environment on the BART to be safe.”

The agency is also trying to make changes to workers’ compensation programs, Bryant added, an issue that goes hand in hand with safety concerns. “They just give [compensation] to people that are hurt, they don't make efforts to rehabilitate and bring these people back to work,” Bryant said. “We are trying to start a new program for this and they just don't want to deal with it.”

Reached by phone, BART spokesperson Rick Rice told the Guardian, “We’re still confident there’s a deal to be had at the negotiating table. As far as I know, they are back at the table” after taking a break from negotiations yesterday, he said.

As of the morning of June 26, “We’ve gotten no notice from them” about when a strike could start, but “they’ve said publicly they’ll give 72 hours warning, and we would hope they would, for the sake of the riders.”

With regard to safety concerns, Rice said BART management meets weekly with union leaders on these issues and that the agency is planning to spend $4.5 million to replace lighting in train tunnels and had budgeted for “hundreds of new security cameras.” He said BART is asking employees to make higher contributions to their health care, and pay into their pension plans. He added that workers are requesting the equivalent of a 23.2 percent wage increase over the duration of the new contract. Rice did not have information about how this requested wage increase compares with the expected rise in the cost of living in the Bay Area, but said this was almost certainly a part of the conversation at the negotiating table.

Asked about the unfair labor practices suit, Rice declined to comment specifically on the allegations raised but stated, “We’re definitely at the table negotiating in good faith.”