End This BART Dispute Now

How did the BART dispute ever reach this point?

For several weeks now, BART management has mounted a sophisticated PR campaign, stating that its workers are overpaid and unreasonable. But its evidence on employee pay and benefits has been misleading at best; its estimates of average pay include many highly paid managers, thus exaggerating significantly the pay of frontline employees. Likewise, management’s statements on employee contributions to health benefits have failed to account for the significant out-of-pocket expenses incurred by many BART employees.

Denigrating your workers in the media may be a winning strategy in the battle for public opinion, but it’s a foolhardy one for senior management running an organization whose success depends so heavily on employee commitment and flexibility.

This week’s public hearing in Oakland before Governor Brown’s three-member investigative panel provided an entirely different version of events from BART’s media campaign. During several hours of testimony, union witnesses described in great detail BART management’s “Comedy of Errors” bargaining style. If their account is accurate — and BART did not dispute the specific allegations, though it did add a couple of its own — this behavior provides almost a textbook example of 'surface bargaining,' i.e., going through the motions of negotiating with no intention of reaching an agreement. Without exception, moreover, union officials stated that this year’s BART negotiations were not only the worst ever at BART, but the worst they had ever seen in several decades in the labor movement.

Rather than make a legitimate effort to negotiate a settlement, management has repeatedly employed delaying tactics; it started negotiations in mid-May, rather than in April, as the union had requested; it has engaged in the arbitrary scheduling of meetings; its chief negotiator Tom Hock was, incredibly, unavailable for one-third of the 30-day contract extension period after the July strike; and over the last weekend, management took almost 12 hours to respond to unions’ pay and benefit proposal. During those critical final hours, management was, unbeknown to the unions, writing to the Governor to request a 60-day cooling off period, rather than attempting to reach a settlement.  

While accusing the unions of excessive contract demands, BART management has made unreasonable and unrealistic bargaining demands of its own: its initial pay and benefits proposal would have meant a 12% cut in real terms for employees who have not had a raise for the past 4 years. At the tail end of bargaining over the weekend, the unions reported that management’s last offer was worse than its previous one. Moreover, management has repeatedly negotiated through the media — even continuing to do so during an agreed-upon gag order — rather than bargain face-to-face with its unions.

But it doesn't need to be this way. It is instructive to compare the train wreck of contract negotiations at BART with the successful negotiations that just concluded at AC Transit, which involved similar pay and benefits challenges. Despite facing contentious issues, AC Transit management and its union reached an agreement without strikes, contract extensions or cooling-off periods. They sat down together, negotiated in good faith, and got the job done.

Contract negotiations are rarely easy — especially in an environment of fiscal austerity — but the AC Transit experience demonstrates that when management and workers are committed to an equitable and sustainable outcome, disparate interests can reach agreement through commonsense compromise. The fundamental obstacle to a similar outcome at BART is that management has neither negotiated in good faith nor shown a genuine desire to avoid a strike. Under the guidance of its chief negotiator Tom Hock — who is notorious for driving down wages and benefits, as well as driving labor disputes to strikes — management has steered negotiations almost unstoppably towards the current stalemate.

It’s certainly possible that Governor Brown will seek a sixty-day cooling off period come Monday, but it should not have come to this. Settling this dispute will require flexibility and compromise on both sides. In order for that to happen, however, BART management must first end its media campaign, sit down with its unions, and negotiate in good faith.