In BART strike, it's transit workers vs. just plain workers

The Bay Area Rapid Transit negotiations underscore diminishing public sympathy for unions. Why would San Francisco workers support the strike when it threatens their own livelihoods?

San Francisco dodged a bullet with Gov. Jerry Brown's deadline maneuver to block a strike by BART employees that would have left hundreds of thousands of Bay Area commuters and tourists stranded and scrambling.

But the temporary delay won't resolve an issue that goes deeper than benefits and wages: This high-stakes standoff has fed the perception that public sector employees are oblivious to other workers' economic pain.

Last month's five-day strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers brought that notion into stark relief, in a region where economy and geography make public transportation a lifeline, not just a convenience.

For riders like Antioch construction worker Sergio Galaviz, another BART work stoppage could gut the family budget. Commuting on the rail system costs him about $40 a week, he told The Times. If he had to drive the family's only car, it would cost him $240 a week for gas, bridge tolls and parking — not to mention strand his wife and kids.

Galaviz is sympathetic to the transportation workers' plight: "They want to get themselves situated better," he said. But many of the riders on his line "commute on BART because they might not be able to afford to get to work without it."

That's what makes these negotiations such an excruciating public drama.

Which working people do you want to support? The 400,000 passengers who ride the system each day? Or the 2,400 well-paid transit workers who haven't received a raise in four years?

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The debate is not that simplistic, of course. But that's how it plays in a crisis like this. When I visited my daughter in San Francisco last week, the looming strike seemed to be all that was on anybody's mind.

At the airport, travelers were taking the contract deadline into account and adjusting flight plans. At Starbucks, young techies were negotiating carpools and begging to bunk with coworkers in the city.

It wasn't just the cost or inconvenience that had them worked up, it was also the perception that they were being held hostage by coddled public employees who hadn't been asked to sacrifice in ways that were squeezing the rest of us.

In recent surveys of Bay Area residents, 44% sided with BART management and 53% said employees were overcompensated. Management is asking workers to contribute more to medical plans and pension accounts and to accept an 8% raise spread out over four years.

The union's demands have included more on-the-job safety measures and a 20% raise over three years. Only 19% of residents polled backed the workers' side in this dispute.

I was surprised that my daughter isn't in that bunch.

Three years ago she protested alongside Muni transit employees, who marched on campus with students against Cal State tuition hikes and a San Francisco ballot measure to trim Muni drivers' pay increases. The measure cruised to victory.

It was an ironic show of solidarity: Struggling college students standing up for Muni drivers who were guaranteed by city charter salaries that would always make them the second-highest paid among the nation's transit workers.

Those students are now college graduates, forced to commute to jobs in a city they can't afford to live in. Or like my daughter, an aspiring teacher, traversing the Bay Area in search of employment. And trying to understand why a San Francisco teacher earns, on average, about $5,000 less each year than the $66,000 a BART agent collects for sitting in a booth, eyeballing automated ticket machines.

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Steven Pitts of the UC Berkeley Labor Center isn't surprised by the resentment embedded in public dismay over the prospect of another BART strike.

That reflects our jaded views about the government sector and its workers, and growing unfamiliarity with the good work done by labor unions, he said.

"In the golden era in the '50s, when union density was around 33%, you could look at your neighbors to the left and the right, and one of you was in a union."

Now only about 12% of America's workers are represented by labor unions, and the public employee share has grown.

"So when people see they haven't been doing well, they have no experience with collective action to change things," Pitts said.

That makes it easy to view the strike threat by BART employees as power-hungry muscle flexing, instead of meaningful worker solidarity.

Maybe what we really feel is jealousy aimed at workers determined to gain back ground that most of us just keep losing.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

 

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