Some lessons from the Bay Area BART strike

By and

Our attempt at this article was inspired by a brief analysis of the BART strike by Maria Poblet of Causa Justicia/Just Cause. We agreed with much of her global view that the strike was conducted under the current neo liberal agenda in this country of dismantling public services, at the same time blaming the inadequacy of those services on the public workers and their unions. In this article we would like to not repeat or focus of these points but home in on what the union(s) could have done better under these conditions – in particular SEIU 1021 – because we are more familiar with that union through our direct work with them in the past.

Why all public workers need to learn from the BART strike:
After a strike or any labor struggle, union summations often focus on how vicious the management was and how one-sided the main-stream media was in their reporting of the strike. Both these points were true during the BART strike, but this is the basis of our first critique. Unions need to ask themselves what they could have done better, regardless of the trying conditions. By its opening strategy, the union leadership appeared not to have expected management’s intransigence or that the mainstream media would immediately, foment public sentiment against them. Why would this be a surprise to any public sector union heading into contract talks today? Didn’t they read the news reports about what had taken place to public sector workers in Wisconsin and Michigan? Closer to home, three years ago, in liberal San Francisco, SEIU and other public workers were attacked with a referendum to cut their pension and health care benefits. Although public sector unions fought this back, a two tier system was created and newly hired SEIU 1021 members have a longer vesting period, and all members now pay more into their pensions. This was done through a compromise referendum offered to the voters as an alternative to the more reactionary one. Only last year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tried to decimate the lowest paid SEIU 1021 members, mostly women, by driving a wedge against comparable worth standards (equal pay for equal work) with male dominated classifications. The Mayor’s lay-off and furlough plan during the recession could have disproportionally fallen on women and minority members in classifications held by SEIU 1021. This unilateral move was stopped in court when a judge ruled that the mayor could not do this in the middle of a current contract and would have to wait until the contract reopens and bargain for this change. This may well be another fight deferred.

Public workers and reliance on politicians:
It is clear from the above that even the most liberal politicians and the leadership of the Democratic Party hierarchy have succumbed to the neo-liberal paradigm that public sector unions are to blame for deteriorating services and rising costs, including in mass transit. So who did SEIU appoint to lead the bargaining battle that would result in the BART strike? Josie Mooney, who served as Executive Director of the old SEIU 790 local in San Francisco before their merger into 1021. Mooney was an old school public sector union head who kept a regular table at one of San Francisco’s tonier restaurants near City Hall where she would meet political power brokers to get what she needed for her members, while returning coveted support for future electoral ambitions. SEIU 790 and 9 other locals in Northern California merged into one regional behemoth Local 1021 (now encompassing over 165 bargaining chapters and 54,000 members). Their BART members constitute only one of these chapters, albeit with one of the better contracts historically.

One of Mooney’s first acts after being rehired was to bring in her old ally, Mark Mosher (of Whitehurst/Mosher Media), on the campaign as a consultant. Mosher’s main work had been as a campaign consultant on most but not exclusively, Democratic Party campaigns. Most observers assumed his main worth was to get the legislators across the counties, who make up the Metropolitan Transit District governing BART, the state legislators and Governor Brown whom he and SEIU had helped elect, to support their cause, and push management into a reasonable and quick settlement. If this was his main worth, he failed miserably. Most legislators and Governor Brown read the political winds and either sided with management or did nothing at all, which amounted to the same thing, forcing SEIU and ATU into no option but to strike.

Where was the direct contact with the ridership and their constituents?
The leadership of 1021 did not prepare the public for the upcoming war. Mass transit riders were painted as collateral damage by the politicians and rather than blame management, most riders blamed the union. Why is this? If SEIU 1021 had done a sober organizing assessment of their members’ interactions and interface with the public including their own ridership they could have foreseen this outcome. Every public sector worker who goes on strike today must do this assessment. All public workers are being attacked today, but some have advantages the BART workers did not.

Police, firefighters, nurses and most teachers are generally looked at sympathetically by the public. Why? For one thing those we serve know us. They see us often when they are vulnerable and need something from our work. Our interface with the public is often direct and one on one. If they don’t have direct dealings with us, it is rare that a family member or friend has not. Even negative interactions are often off-set by the majority of positive ones and the most pro-management biased media cannot discount these inter-actions with our members.

How does the commuting public interact with BART workers? They don’t. One barely catches a glance of the train conductor as the trains speed into the stations and we jump on or off into the third, fourth or eighth car. There is no interaction with humans when paying our fares unless BART security officers are checking our passes, often an unpleasant experience. Even the maligned Muni bus drivers are more sympathetic because we often walk by them as we board the front of the bus. If we are regulars, we see the same drivers coming and going on the same route as our regular commute. We see can see them smile or frown and they are sources of information to new riders and lost tourist. We hear their voices as they tell passengers approaching stops and crowds to please move back to make way for new passengers, and we may even sympathize with their working conditions as we see bicyclists weave in and out of lanes, watch how they get stuck behind private Google buses and delivery trucks, double parked taxi’s and slam on their brakes for jay-walkers.

We have no idea what a BART conductor is doing or dealing with, the train just moves and stops. If management tells us it can all be done automatically by a computer program, we think maybe it can. We have no view of the conductor separated from the riders in his caged booth at the front of the train. Riders have even less knowledge of what mechanics, electrical techs, car cleaners or other workers do to keep the trains moving. These workers often labor in the middle of the night on the train tracks or in rail yards closed to the public. We have no idea how dirty, hard and dangerous their jobs are. We have no idea about the skills, training or education these workers have obtained through years both from BART and often before at technical colleges and other trade apprenticeships, before they crossed over to their BART jobs. Ironically an example of job safety reared its head when two strike breakers were killed during the strike while a train was on auto-pilot, exactly what management had wanted to do on a more routine basis in their proposed work rule changes.

“SEIU 1021 was aware of this history and public perception yet did not do the public education they needed to make their working conditions share common ground with the riding publics commuting conditions. This education should have commenced one full year before the start of bargaining. Better yet it should be done as a component of organizing their membership internally in a permanent program.”

The only contact the public has with a worker is with some of the BART station agents and this often is a negative experience because they seem to be the frontline bearer of bad news without any ability to fix problems. The toilet, escalator, elevator, change machine, ticket machine is out of order again; “sorry go to the other ones on the other side of the station”, seems to be their main message to most riders. They cannot dispense tickets, collect fares or make change yet are enforcers against gate jumpers, homeless squatters or just drunken sports fans who often take out any inconvenience on this sole BART employee they can see. Sadly, the second biggest safety issue on the table this year, besides the maintenance workers dealing with walking on the train tracks and dealing with the high voltage lethal third rail, is the lone BART station agent who has increasingly been assaulted by members of the riding public, who experience real or perceived slights from a transit system that over charges and under-serves them.

SEIU 1021 was aware of this history and public perception yet did not do the public education they needed to make their working conditions share common ground with the riding publics commuting conditions. This education should have commenced one full year before the start of bargaining. Better yet it should be done as a component of organizing their membership internally in a permanent program. Compare this with the California Nurses Association’s approach. CNA has been able to garner the most support in their campaigns when they have made the working conditions of registered nurses the quality care conditions of the patients left in their charge. The slogan “RN’s are patient advocates” was not an accidental slogan. They sent their member nurses out to talk at senior centers, community groups and anyone else that would listen about how hospital administrators cutting corners is not just about the nurses losing pay or working harder but forcing them to make mistakes, which they were unwilling to carry out, causing injury or death to their patients. CNA has worked on this for years and not just during contract bargaining and a large section of the public now believe this. In many polls on public perception of public workers registered nurses consistently ranked highest as most well liked and trusted. The only group with a higher ranking is firefighters.

Can we not imagine how different things may have played out in the media if BART employees were looked upon by the riding public as mass transit advocates? As advocates who wanted to build an efficient, safe, affordable, public alternative system of commuting to the grid-lock of private automobiles, and the privilege of the private Google buses that the 99% has no ability to ride on. Ironically this mantle is currently held by the President of the BART board of directors; Tom Radulovich, who took a hard line against the workers’ demands through much of the negotiations. He is the resident mass transit advocate and environmentalist. He has held this position for many years not only because he does believe in mass transit as an environmental option, but because the unions have conceded this mantle to him by not speaking out and claiming it for themselves. In another twist of irony the only person quoted against the new policy of allowing bicycles on BART trains at all hours was Antoinette Bryant, president of ATU 1555, representing the train conductors. She was cast as the dissenting voice against all the environmentalist and public transit advocates at the end of the strike.

In sum, one of the problems with ATU and SEIU’s public campaign was that they seemed not to have a vision of how to improve public transit or that they even cared about it. That how the BART system works was part of union’s vision too. We do not want to imply that health care workers or teachers have always paid attention to the concerns of those we serve, but we are getting better and our thoughts on how to make the systems we work under and the same system that serves the public has to be part of our discussion with the membership. Our contract demands including our working conditions must be related to what the public gets from us. A teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions is one of our union slogans, comparable to the one for the nurse’s mentioned.

Where was the media strategy?
More important, we need to have enough media savvy to bring our ideas to the public and the best people to do this is our working members. All during the strike the unions seemed not to have any communication strategy and the spokespeople who were paraded before the media seemed unprepared. Often the best quotes came from workers interviewed extemporaneously. There was no visible, planned, regular alternative outreach done directly to riders or what could have been a wider base of community support. Under this condition, the mainstream media’s bias was amplified.

Management became the spokespeople for the pain and suffering of the riding public during the strike. Many Democratic Party politicians and the mainstream media jumped on this bandwagon highlighting the inconvenience of the strike, overwhelmingly placing blame on the unions, subverting the recalcitrance of management which gave both ATU and SEIU no other option, forcing them to strike. SEIU did not do much educational outreach to their poorer union cousins in the private sector, who were often also part of their ridership. This was particularly disappointing because SEIU has a long history of good coalition work with community groups and collaboration with other unions and they could have easily done this, months in advance of the strike. With the funds they paid Mosher and Mooney they could have put tens of organizers and members on the ground to carry it out. Instead they went through the normal channels of strike support, from the Central Labor Councils and the California Labor Federation. These bodies are detached from working rank and file members, and sound bites from their leaders can’t be the only source of communication about a labor struggle, where direct sacrifice is required, in the cause of solidarity. In a last minute effort when the strike was already in full swing, some members of SEIU set up meetings with community groups through Jobs with Justice to discuss the issues of the strike with community members. This was a noble effort but too little, too late. If this outreach started earlier it would have spread beyond the usual suspects.

What Next?
The strike is now over and there’s a contract in place for a few years and it seems to be a fair contract, but came at a heavy cost; two dead workers and an unpopular strike. The worse thing the unions could do is to be lulled into inaction until the next contract. The war against public transit workers is still on. Management has already hinted about a fare increase and guess who the media and politicians will blame? Should we let the riders believe that a large fare increase, with no increase in service, is solely due to the SEIU/ATU getting a mildly decent contract? Politicians, with the backing of business and media are again clamoring for the prohibition of transit strikes, with no mention of binding mediation requirements to give the unions some impartiality, in top down changes. We hope that SEIU and ATU realizes that the war is not over and start retooling to deal with these attacks and mobilize all their public sector workers on constant alert. The attack to dismantle public sector services, including mass transit, has just started.

About the author

Warren Mar

He is a labor organizer and was long active as a member of Local 2 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE). Before joining labor Warren Mar worked for a decade as a community organizer. He was the co-founder of two organizations which are still in existence today in SF Chinatown: Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) founded in 1973 and the Chinatown Youth Center (CYC) founded in 1969. He has served on the board of the CT Resource Center and helped organize , as an unpaid organizer, tenants at two Chinatown SRO’s. View all posts by Warren Mar →

Susan McDonough

Susan McDonough worked for SEIU Local 715 in Santa Clara County where she organized and represented public sector workers. She also worked at SEIU Local 790 before its merger into SEIU 1021. She was the primary organizer and representative of the BART chapter during contract bargaining in 2005. She is retired from the Alameda Labor Council, where she served as Community Services Director. View all posts by Susan McDonough →

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