Last tango: Investigators sort through BART's labor impasse

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Investigators questioned BART workers, managers, and negotiators throughout the day in Oakland.
Joe Fitzgerald

Much of BART's dirty laundry was aired at the first hearing on the negotiations in Oakland today, part of a seven-day investigation called by Gov. Jerry Brown after Sunday night's talks between unions and management threatened the Bay Area with another strike.

The particulars of each side's bargaining offers are normally hush-hush, but the hearing was a chance for the public to get a peek into what each side has been asking for. As the three-person panel on the governor's fact-finding board sat at a long table facing the audience, management and unions sat on separate tables, much like that in a courtroom. 

Amid all the particulars of wages and economics, the unions levied  major allegations over safety concerns, saying that BART management hasn't incorporated safety changes after the deaths of workers.

Saul Almanza, a BART representative from SEIU Local 1021 and a 17-year railroader, showed the board a set of photos of the places where BART workers had been killed on the job. 

"I'd like to start out with the picture with the part where Robert [Rhodes] was killed," he said. "The area where Mr. Rhodes was killed was very dark, and remains that way today. Look at the picture to the left, and that’s where Mr. Rhodes was standing as the southbound train proceeded through the interlock. It was dark and loud, and that’s where he was struck as he stood there with no place to go."

Almanza said that he brought up lighting improvements to his management at many levels, many times. When no improvements were made, that’s when the safety issues became a major point in bargaining, one sticking point that led to the four-day strike in early July. 

Paul Oversier, BART's general manager of operations, made it a point to hammer home how pained the Bay Area was during the strikes, alleging that "people who depend on BART, who want to fill their prescriptions" may have been delayed, among others. 

He also touted some drastic numbers, saying the direct cost of the BART strike to the Bay Area was estimated at about $73 million per a weekday. 

"That doesn't include empty tables at Bay Area restaurants, higher day care payments for working parents, or the  overall increase in personal stress throughout the region," Oversier said. "None of these are counted in the economic model used for the BART strike." 

But the union said that management did everything short of inviting them to strike, repeatedly used stalling tactics, making counter-offers that had changes of "point five percent" from their previous offers, and avoiding bargaining for as long as 33 hours at a time. 

Vincent Harrington has represented BART unions in contract negotiations since 1978, but he said this negotiation has had more hardball tactics than he's seen in any negotiation. "This time around, we couldn't even reach an agreement on ground rules," he told the board. 

He also said that management used the media as a way to spread inaccurate information. He wanted to use the hearing as a chance to air the "facts versus myths."

One commonly misreported figure is that BART workers pay only $92 per month into their healthcare, he said. "That doesn't tell the full story. These workers contributed 1.627 percent of their wages into a fund to cover not only the ongoing health care of active employees, but also the retirees. There are 3,000 employees in the plans," he said.

That brings the total to about $180 per person, he said, with a caveat. Some time ago, employer-provided healthcare was capped. "Additional costs beyond that cap would be on the workers and their families, not on BART," he said.

Harrington also brought up a point of contention in negotiations that is familiar to regular BART riders: how bathrooms in the station are routinely locked and unavailable for use.
"We want BART to reopen bathrooms for patrons. We are not aware of a single transit station today that keeps the bathrooms locked. What does that mean for workers and our patrons? Where do they go? That means they relieve themselves in the stations," he said. The bathrooms were locked since the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks at nearly every station. "We asked them to open them up. BART has said no."

Management and the unions both presented their idealized BART systems, with management reiterating their need to invest in new trains and to control pension costs, and unions saying their workers deserve a living wage.

This will be the only public hearing day, and afterward the panel of Jacob Applesmith, Micki Callahan, and Robert L. Balgenort will put together a draft report for Brown, which is due Sunday. 

This could lead to a 60-day cooling off period where no strikes could take place, or Monday morning we could find ourselves with no BART trains and negotiations again at a standstill.

BART union negotiators said that they were willing to talk, and that they could even hammer out a deal with management by Sunday — if management is willing to bargain in good faith.

"It’s like a textbook on how to bargain but not actually be bargaining," Harrington said. "It’s like a tango: you can't do it by yourself very effectively."

Any member of the public that wishes to send a comment about the BART negotiations may do so to communications@dir.ca.gov until 9am tomorrow [Thu/8]. The board said its report, once sent to the governor, would also be made public and likely available on the governor's website.