BART negotiations disintegrate into strike threat

on October 17, 2013

By Becca Andrews and Yolanda Martinez

This article was originally published in Oakland North.

Almost a full week of negotiations unraveled Thursday afternoon when union workers and BART management came to a stalemate and talks ended in the threat of a strike set to start midnight Thursday.

The two parties seemed to be telling completely different stories at a heated press conference Thursday around 4:15 p.m. The near-nuclear situation looked as if it would be neutralized, putting another feather in the cap of George Cohen, a nationally-recognized federal mediator. But Cohen announced Thursday afternoon that his team had done all they could and would be returning to Washington, D.C.

Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, said the problem was a last-minute “management rights clause to take away our rights as workers.”

“They would put managers in the position to change the rules for our members day-by-day and shift-by-shift,” Bryant said.

Roxanne Sanchez, president for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, echoed Bryant in a statement.

“Time and time again, after we made a concession, management would move the goal posts, including now—after reaching a general agreement on economics—demanding changes in work place rules that have historically protected workers from issues like abuse of power, unfair treatment and sexual harassment,” Sanchez said.

Tom Radulovich, BART board president, said there are two proposals currently out there— one from BART and one from the unions. The one from BART is essentially what was offered Sunday night, which includes a three percent annual raise over four years for a 12 percent total and a chance to earn up to $1,000 per year if ridership grows. It also calls for contributions of four percent toward pension and 9.5 percent toward medical insurance. The offer is on the table through Oct. 27.

Meanwhile, frazzled and furious commuters seethed at having to improvise alternate commute plans, from driving their cars through strike-swollen traffic jams, to taking a late night “drunk bus” filled with partiers.

The dealbreaker

“Work rules” were repeatedly cited by management as the subject of dispute.

Radulovich said the rules in question have to do with the bidding process. Currently, workers are able to bid on which location they work in on a day-to-day basis. Management wants more control over that. One suggestion was that bidding be available monthly instead of daily.

“Sometimes, it is important to assign people to locations,” Radulovich said.

Economics and health care had been agreed upon, along with some work rules.

The announcements were made after more than 30 straight hours of negotiations. Bryant said they were all still in the clothes they came in wearing at 10 a.m. the previous morning.

SEIU Local 1021 and ATU Local 1555 have announced they will strike at midnight.

But American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3993 said it hasn’t declared a strike. AFSCME represents BART operators, and their negotiations are separate from the other unions.

However, AFSCME is supporting the other two unions’ decision to strike and it is asking “all AFSCME brothers and sisters to support the BART strike” as well, according to AFSCME communications director Kevin Brown.

Commuters are outraged at the inconvenience.

Richmond resident Ryan Ramirez, 22 years old, works at the kitchen at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco. He commutes from home to the 16th and Mission BART station almost daily. During the last strike, he had to borrow his mother’s car.

Ramirez said won’t drive this time around because the traffic will be tight and he’s worried about gas prices. This time he plans to take the 800 bus, which he calls the “drunk bus,” because it carries many late night party goers who missed BART.
He has little sympathy for BART workers.

“I just want to go home,” he said. “I get to work on time, so why can’t they?”

Also fed up is Karman Wright, 31, who lives in San Pablo and works as a training consultant for a medical group in Oakland.

“I think it’s ridiculous commuters are subjected to be on standby until they figure it out,” Wright said. “We’re having to put our lives on hold. I’ll drive tomorrow. It will be a longer commute. And BART is cheaper.”

Arbitration up for debate

Another point of contention was the suggestion by the unions that neutral arbitration be brought in to make a final decision.

Unions raised the question of arbitration at 3 a.m. Thursday morning and repeated it several times throughout the day, according to ATU Local 1555 spokesman Chris Finn.

“We proposed numerous times, whatever outstanding issues we have, we can take to binding arbitration,” Finn said.

Finn said BART’s management balked at the idea, saying the bargaining should happen at the table.

“We can agree to a common interest arbitration,” Radulovich said, adding that the issue with arbitration is that it would require the entire BART board of directors, who would need 24 hours’ notice to assemble.

According to Radulovich, unions want to make another proposal, but management wants to put forth the two current proposals.

As Radulovich was speaking to press, the Twitter account for ATU Local 1555 sent out tweets that said the lead negotiator refused the request for arbitration three times and that ATU has not heard from management that it is now an option.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said in a press release issued Thursday evening that BART workers have a responsibility as “public servants,” much like government officials, and must consider the inconvenience to the Bay Area above all. Quan ended her statement by supporting the idea of arbitration.

“As to the issue at hand, I ask that BART management reconsider and allow these negotiations to move into arbitration for the unresolved work rules issues,” Quan said. “An agreement that is fair to both parties is within reach.”

Alternative Transportation

Rick Rice, BART spokesperson, said BART has 120-150 buses reserved for commuters who are affected by the strike. The contingency plan originally stated 200 buses would be made available.

Alicia Trost, another BART spokesperson, said they are hoping to get approximately 4,000 people across the bay.

She admitted it is “just a small drop in the bucket” compared to the typical 400,000 “exits,” or trips, that BART provides to commuters daily.

Trost recommended riders arrive at the bus stop at 5 a.m.

It doesn’t appear that AC Transit will offer substantial relief. Currently, around 11,000 riders use AC Transit buses daily to cross the Transbay Tube. Even without adding extra buses, AC Transit representatives say that they can double the amount of passengers they carry, because most buses are half empty on normal business days.

Background

The last BART strike came at the beginning of last July, sparked by the same contract negotiations.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 60-day cooling-off period, which ended officially at midnight Thursday, Oct. 10. The threat to strike has been hanging over commuters ever since.

It looked as through negotiations would collapse last Sunday, when BART management made its “last, best, final offer”—the offer that is still on the table—and union representatives declined.

Bryant called it “reprehensible” and said it was a major step back.

Cohen came in the next day to begin mediation.

Public support for the unions has dropped drastically over the past week, and a petition being promoted by Orinda City Councilmember Steve Glazer that aims to make it illegal for BART workers to strike has been gaining momentum. Glazer has campaigned for the proposed legislation all week, and visited all 44 BART stations Monday.

“BART is an essential public service,” Glazer said. “When it is shut down it, affects the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, many businesses and our regional economy.”

Shelby Carpenter, Jason Paladino, Rigoberto Hernandez and Kathleen Seccombe contributed to this report.

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