BART, Shutdown: Waiting for the Apocalypses

Debra J. Saunders

10/17/2013 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

What do you call waiting for the end of a partial government shutdown while waiting to see if Congress raises the debt limit while waiting to see if Bay Area Rapid Transit workers strike and Alameda-Contra Costa Transit workers join them? Waiting for the apocalypses? Or: Bargaining bad.

In Washington, a rump group of Republicans preferred a grudge match over governing -- and incurred the public's wrath. In the Bay Area, transit unions have made a similar mistake. By threatening to strike and ruin the commute for 400,000 BART riders, labor leaders have led the public to believe that BART workers think that riders work for BART labor, not the other way around.

The cost to the community is more than $70 million a day. People like me can work at home at least some days, so it's not as much of a hardship, but a strike places huge burdens on working people who don't have a lot of choices. They might not own cars. They have to show up at a restaurant or a hospital to collect a paycheck. Unlike transit workers who elect to strike, they cannot afford to not work.

I don't have to tell readers about public sentiment. Even in the very liberal Bay Area, voters will turn on the union if there is a strike.

Steve Glazer -- political guru to Gov. Jerry Brown, Orinda city councilman and Democratic candidate for state Assembly -- has begun circulating a petition in support of a proposed state law to ban transit workers, including BART, from striking. I've had readers suggest such a bill before, and I have slapped them down for suggesting something so clearly un-gettable from the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.

If there is a strike, Glazer figures, Sacramento could do the unimaginable -- just as New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago did before. "These are Democratic strongholds, and I'm sure the labor community was as powerful there, if not more powerful. But out of crises can come new opportunities."

This crusade has won Glazer more than his share of enemies within his party, but he told me he acted because no other local politician stepped into the breach. His intent is to save labor leaders from their excesses. Maybe it's helping. So far, BART unions have threatened to strike but wisely refrained from doing so.

Labor's next step, Glazer suggested, might be to assure riders that they won't strike as long as both sides are negotiating. It's time to end the roller coaster for people who want to know how to plan the next day.

BART unions have legitimate beefs. Workers haven't had a raise in four years. By not coming to terms sooner, labor won an offer of four annual 3 percent pay raises. Those are good raises, even if they are tempered by an increase to employee health contributions from $92 to $144 per month in 2017 and a first-time requirement that they pay into their pensions -- 1 percent in year one, 4 percent in year four.

In a world where so many people have seen their pay increases devoured by rising benefit costs, however, BART workers should not expect a lot of sympathy. BART salaries average between $66,000 and $74,000, depending on which side you ask. A Chronicle analysis found that when you add in health care and pension contributions, BART workers "may well be among the best off in the country."

BART management isn't doing that poorly either. Chief negotiator Thomas Hock has a $399,000 contract. General Manager Grace Crunican makes $350,000 a year -- after two years, she is vested with lifetime medical care. Her fired predecessor walked away with a $1 million severance package. These cozy arrangements serve as an unwritten invitation to labor actions. Thank you, elected BART board.

As I write this, Washington finally seems poised to get back to work. A BART strike remains a possibility. Labor leaders must know that they cannot win a strike. The public has given BART workers its trust; once lost, it will not be easy to reclaim.