Framing The Debate Around The BART Strikes
The current BART strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area are causing absolute pandemonium right now. It’s the first time in almost twenty years that BART has actually stopped running, and people everywhere are either looking for answers, or more importantly, for someone to blame.
As per usual, most people are pointing their fingers at the unions, which to a certain degree is understandable. Striking is a radical act, and one not to be taken lightly by anyone. But I challenge all who are complaining about the strike’s inconvenience to offer a more effective solution as the last resort in a collective bargaining strategy. The decision to strike was not arbitrary, rather the result of careful deliberation by unions who, when backed into a corner, felt they had little other choice. This is a point I cannot stress enough, as corporate media outlets both national and local do a fantastic job of making it appear as if union strikes are some sort of knee-jerk reaction from petulant children that can’t wait to strike at the first available opportunity. It’s a complete lie, one that has been carefully cultivated for decades, and its effect is incredibly apparent in the discussions surround the BART strikes.
A critical fact painfully absent from this discussion is that these labor negotiations have been going on for around three months, and that local media outlets didn’t bother to start covering it until two weeks ago. You would think that an issue like labor negotiations for the fourth largest public transportation system in the country would merit a little more press, especially given the prospect of their failure and what it would mean for the hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area that make use of BART on a daily basis, right?
You’d think the unions would like to get in front of the issue, in order to rally public support, but they don’t have the money or the media access to get their message out to a wide enough audience, and therefore lack the resources to control the debate; unions almost never do. As a result, this entire debate has been framed by BART officials who demonize the striking unions and turn the public against them, and so far, they’re doing a helluva job.
In hindsight it seems clear that BART officials didn’t want people to know about these negotiations when they started three months ago. That would have offered the public far too much time to think critically about the stakes, and understand that BART needs to support its workers to keep the lines keep running smoothly. Opening up the debate too soon would also have given people too much time to prepare for worst-case scenarios like a strike. It’s a whole lot easier to convince the public that the strikes are the union’s fault when facility shutdowns can be presented as looming crises that seemingly come from nowhere. BART has been stalling for time on this one, deliberately failing to make concessions in an absence of media coverage and then carefully disclosing specific issues to the press to make it appear as if they (and, by proxy, the residents of the Bay Area) are under siege. Disingenuous is not a strong enough word; it’s downright shady.
Being the first to the table with talking points is another critical component of controlling the debate, and in a time where crippling recession, low wages, and high unemployment have everyone scrambling for cash, BART’s ability to enter the public square first and use wages as a talking point is a great way for them to make union members look like greedy assholes who’s demands deserve no respect. Wage gaps breed incredible resentment among people, and are almost always used by big business as a wedge tactic in union negotiations to levy public pressure against union members.
The SF Examiner reported that striking BART employees make a maximum of $62k/year, and an average of $17k/year in overtime pay. While I could not find a number for a BART employee’s average annual salary, if the ceiling is $62k, I can assure you that the median is significantly lower; realistically, it’s probably somewhere in the mid-thirties. Once you actually take a look at the numbers, it becomes clear that what BART employees are asking for – a 4.5 percent annual raise over the next three years – is a rather modest concession, one that’s been put off now for nearly half a decade. BART General Managers make over $400k/year with incentive bonuses, more than double what the governor of California makes. Perhaps coach and kiosk operators could have their wage increase covered by an upper management pay cut? What do you think?
Also, before begrudging ANYone their overtime pay, remember that a) if BART hired more employees on the surplus budget they’ve been operating under for the last three years, overtime costs could be significantly lowered, and b) it’s because of unions that any of us have the right to earn any overtime pay whatsoever. To deny them the right to overtime is to deny yourself that same right.
The other things BART employees are asking for, namely improvements in worker safety conditions and increased security, have been completely overshadowed by the wage issue, and they are arguably just as important. BART employee injuries and assaults have skyrocketed in recent years, and workplace safety has become a bigger issue than ever.
BART Police figures show more than 2,400 serious crimes committed on the transit system over the last three years – in five stations alone. There were more than 1,000 physical attacks on riders in the same time period, and more than 100 physical attacks on BART employees. Many of these crimes are so serious that BART police are required to report them to the FBI, as they include homicide, rape, physical battery, aggravated assault, and serious property crimes.
– Amalgamated Transit Union press release, 6/24/13
In addition to lobbying for these things in their contract, both unions involved in the strike have a lawsuit pending against BART’s Board Of Directors for refusing to bargain in good faith over worker safety.
BART officials get to fill in those gaps with all the biased, hypocritical nonsense they choose. Station Agents seem to be the most common folks to get shafted: they are the lowest rungs on the totem pole and the people that the general public has the most direct contact with. Here’s a Station Agent job description as outlined by BART ; I’ll let you be your own judge of whether they’re worth what they make, which is likely well below the median.
As an aside, many of BART’s Station Agents are people of color, and many of the tropes being employed against them (lazy, bad attitude, “milking the system,” etc.) are highly racially charged. Seeing as how most of the people I’ve seen complaining the loudest about the strike’s inconvenience have been white, I feel like that’s relevant.
Combine all of this with the systemic failure across local media outlets to challenge BART’s status quo, and you have all the makings of a classic scenario where union members are little more than dangerous thugs who strong-arm meek and helpless corporations into submission to get what they want.
As a Bay Area resident, I appreciate the incredible value of BART; particularly as someone who chooses not to own a car. The fact that the entire system is currently shut down is a nightmare. But it’s important to step back and apply a critical eye to exactly how this nightmare came about, who’s actually responsible for it, and then to levy your sympathies and your criticisms appropriately. Like so many other battles across the history of the labor movement, the unions didn’t start this fight, they’re just finishing it.
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