Hearing to probe safety at BART and issues related to recent tragedy

|
()
The BART train that killed two workers on Oct. 19 had a trainee at the helm.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment will hold a hearing in San Francisco tomorrow (Thu/7 at 10am) looking at workplace safety issues in the BART system, one initially prompted by the district’s record of unaddressed safety violations, but which took on special resonance when two BART workers were killed on the tracks on Oct. 19.

Assemblymember Phil Ting called for the hearing back in June, but he postponed it until the district resolved a protracted contract impasse with its three unions that resulted in two four-day strikes this year, with an agreement finally reached two days after the tragedy — and at least partially prompted by it.

Ting told the Guardian that he was motivated by dozens of violations from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the district has received since its last fatality in 2008 — which were highlighted by the unions and reported by us — and the fact that “BART ended up appealing them instead of going to fix them.”

“It’s so unfortunate that we have this tragedy, which will create a greater sense of urgency on this issue,” Ting said, noting that he wants to focus on, “How do we move forward and fix these problems?”

Beyond those safety issues lurk another important issue that we at the Guardian have been raising, but which most journalists have ignored and the district has tried to avoided addressing: Was the district ignoring safety concerns by its unions to train replacement drivers on that ill-fated train, and did its preparations to run limited service during a strike harden its negotiating stance and force the strikes and ultimately the tragedy?

It may be many months before the National Transportation Safety Board investigation arrives at conclusions about what caused the fatalities, but it has already said that a trainee was at the helm at the time. Although the NTSB has told the district not to publicly discuss the accident, that doesn’t cover the labor negotiations that led up to it, and the Guardian has finally been able to get some responses from the district to our questions (below, you can find an extended exchange between me and BART spokesperson Alicia Trost), but key questions remain unanswered.

Will tomorrow’s hearing illuminate the connection between the labor impasse and the tragedy? “We’ll have to touch on some of it,” Ting told us. “But I’m not sure what they’ll say.”

BART Board President Tom Radulovich discussed the issues with the Guardian, and he cautioned about any rush to judgement about the cause of the Oct. 19 accident and whether it was connected to preparations that the district was making to possibly offer replacement service, which the board would have had to approve.

Although he said the board was briefed by district officials about the possibility of offering service, Radulovich said he didn’t consider the idea feasible and that “a lot of directors had misgivings about even the possibility of running replacement service.”

Radulovich also defended the eventual deal as resulting from compromises on both sides and not simply the district sweetening its offer and dropping some of its work rule demands — which the unions had blamed for the Oct. 17 breakdown in negotiations — and “I don’t think [limited replacement service] would have broken a strike.”

But SEIU Local 1021 Political Director Chris Daly, who was part of the union’s negotiating team, said the district was “bargaining toward a strike” all year and that the threat of running replacement service was taken seriously by the unions, all of whom warned the district it would be unsafe.

“We would have lost this fight if they had put limited service on,” Daly told us, noting how that would have allowed the district to weather a strike long enough to break the will of union members.

Daly also disputes the district’s characterization that relaxed work rules demands by the unions settled the impasse, telling us, “In the end, the deal was a little more compromise on substance, but not as much as that would have occurred in the binding arbitration that we proposed before the strikes.”

The district rejected that offer, setting the stage for the latest strike, and Daly said the only reason why BART softened its stance was because the tragedy made BART realize its plan to run replacement service was not longer a viable option: “There is not question in anyone’s mind that was the breakthrough.”

Both Radulovich and district officials insist there were no active plans to run replacement service, although BART spokesperson Alicia Trost made clear that the district had publicly raised that possibility and that training to that end was already underway at the time the tragedy.

Radulovich insists that the district wasn’t bargained toward a strike and that “we just wanted a balanced package.” But he also wasn’t at the bargaining table, and he says that he’s not aware of how much driver training had been done and whether it was being done on the ill-fated train in preparation for replacement service.

“I still have a lot of questions and I do want to see the facts,” Radulovich told us.    

We at the Guardian also still have a lot of questions, which Trost was dodging until just a few days ago, when my last blog post on the topic finally prompted a substantial response. So here’s our most recent email exchange:

 

SFBG: Who at the district proposed training replacement drivers and did the board approve that training?
Did the district discuss warnings from the unions that such training would be unsafe? Why was the decision made to go ahead with the training anyway?
Why did it take days for BART to admit a trainee was driving the train that killed those men? And wasn't casting that train as solely on a maintenance run deceptive?
Does the district regret the decision to train replacement drivers?
What role did the tragedy play in BART's decision to sweeten its final offer and end the strike?
Did anyone at the district discuss with Tom Hocke how running replacement service could help break a strike? Do you deny that running limited service would help to break a strike?
Did the possibility of running replacement service allow the district to take a tougher stance at the bargaining table? And did this tragedy help the district conclude that running such service wasn't a viable option?
Can you characterize what you meant by an "extended strike" and explain why training took place immediately at the onset if the strike?

 

BART: The District wanted a plan in place to run limited train service in the event of a prolonged strike.  The intent was never to replace workers, as our workers would be welcomed back once a strike ended, but to provide some limited congestion relief if the Bay Area was faced with a long, crippling and economically devastating strike. 

If the district was going to provide this limited service for the public it would need more certified managers which is why we were training. At the same time we were negotiating in good faith and trying to prevent a strike from happening in the first place. Our priority was always to get to a deal and avoid an unnecessary strike.  Once the unions went on strike for the second time we continued to negotiate and leave the door open for a deal. Which is exactly what happened. A deal came together and BART never needed to go to the board with a limited train service plan. Safety is always our top priority and is always the first, second and third consideration in everything we do. 

The NTSB immediately put a gag order on BART officials just hours after the tragic deaths, which remains in place today. Only the NTSB can provide information surrounding the incident. The NTSB announced the train was being used for both maintenance and training purposes. Under the gag order, BART is allowed to site what the NTSB has reported to date. 

The tragedy certainly redoubled everyone's efforts to get to a deal.   The breakthrough came when the unions presented language on Beneficial Past Practice on Sunday night. This opened the door to continue to work off the progress that had been made on the economic components with the mediators just days before and resolve the remaining issues. 

 

SFBG: Thanks for finally getting back to me, but I don't think you directly answered any of the questions that I posed.

 

BART: Did BART management consider the warnings (include one in the form of a

lawsuit) that running that service was unsafe?  Safety is always our top priority and is always the first, second and third consideration in everything we do.

And did the tragedy reinforce that safety question and signal to the district that running trains during a strike was probably unwise and that the district should sweeten its contract offer?

We have to run trains during a strike to exercise the system (details sent in a earlier email.) If you are talking about running passenger service, we never needed to move forward with such a plan as we were not faced with a prolonged strike.  The tragedy certainly redoubled everyone's efforts to get to a deal.   The breakthrough came when the unions presented language on Beneficial Past Practice on Sunday night. This opened the door to continue to work off the progress that had been made on the economic components with the mediators just days before and resolve the remaining issues.

Who at the district proposed training replacement drivers and did the board approve that training?

The Operations Department was conducting the training as publically discussed by Paul Oversier to the MTC and to the media.  The board does not need to approve training.  (on background: I do not know if or who officially "proposed it."  The first I learned of the concept was the MTC meeting.)

Did the district discuss warnings from the unions that such training would be unsafe? Why was the decision made to go ahead with the training anyway?

Safety is always our top priority and is always the first, second and third consideration in everything we do. The District wanted a plan in place to run limited train service in the event of a prolonged strike.

Why did it take days for BART to admit a trainee was driving the train that killed those men? And wasn't casting that train as solely on a maintenance run deceptive?   

During the press conference immediately following the accident, a reporter asked where the train was going.  Mr. Oversier explained the train had just dropped off the graffiti train and was headed back to Concord.  He said he didn't know who was driving the train as he had just arrived to the scene. The NTSB immediately put a gag order on BART

officials just hours after the tragic deaths, which remains in place today. Only the NTSB can provide information surrounding the incident. The NTSB announced the train was being used for both maintenance and training purposes. Under the gag order, BART is allowed to site what the NTSB has reported to date, which is why we can now point out the fact the train was both a training train and a maintenance/inspection trains we routinely run during strikes to exercise the system and deploy staff to assignments.
Does the district regret the decision to train replacement drivers?

This is a difficult question to answer without a summary of findings from the NTSB.
What role did the tragedy play in BART's decision to sweeten its final

offer and end the strike?

The tragedy certainly redoubled everyone's efforts to get to a deal.   The breakthrough came when the unions presented language on Beneficial Past Practice on Sunday night. This opened the door to continue to work off the progress that had been made on the economic components with the mediators just days before and resolve the remaining
issues.

Did anyone at the district discuss with Tom Hocke how running replacement

service could help break a strike?

No, the intent was to provide some contingencies for the travelling public being adversely impacted by the unions decision to strike.  

Do you deny that running limited service would help to break a strike?

The intent was never to replace workers, as our workers would be welcomed back once a strike ended, but to provide some limited congestion relief if the Bay Area was faced with a long, crippling and economically devastating strike.  Skeletal service would never be able to replace BART's normal operation but it could provide a tiny bit of
congestion relief to the public.  BART's bargaining team was always focused
on getting a deal with union leadership- one that would be approved by the
workers as well.

Did the possibility of running replacement service allow the district to take a tougher stance at the bargaining table? And did this tragedy help the district conclude that running such service wasn't a viable option?

Our priority was always to get to a deal and avoid an unnecessary strike. Once the unions went on strike for the second time we continued to negotiate in good faith and leave the door open for a deal. Which is exactly what happened. A deal came together and BART never needed to go to the board with a limited train service plan.

Can you characterize what you meant by an "extended strike" and explain why training took place immediately at the onset if the strike?

There was never an exact time period placed on what an "extended strike" would be, but
union leadership indicated publically they were prepared for a month long strike which would be the "longest and bloodiest strike" we've ever seen. We began initial training weeks before the strike- as widely covered by the media.  If the district was going to provide limited service for the public it would need more certified managers than we had.

 

 

 

Also from this author