The final outcome is not yet clear, but even a four-day strike against BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, the rail system that serves San Francisco and the surrounding area) in July and the threat of a longer one haven’t won transit-union workers in the Bay Area the concessions they want.
According to BART, the workers, who are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, are demanding a 15 percent raise over the next three years.
Make no mistake: We’re not in Oliver Twist territory here. According to BART, the employees — who do blue-collar work such as manning the stations and operating the trains — make an average of $71,000 a year plus $11,000 in overtime. The median household income — household, mind you — in San Francisco County is $73,000. BART employees may not have the lifestyle of Mark Zuckerberg, but they are not anywhere close to poverty.
BART has already made some concessions, including allowing employees to continue paying a mere $92 a month for their health insurance, even if they have dependents. (They will have to pay higher premiums, however, if they choose one of the more expansive plans.) Originally, BART wanted to offer a 4 percent raise over the next four years; now it is proposing a 9 percent raise over the next four years.
Another sticking point is BART’s insistence that employees start contributing to their own pensions. And these pensions are much more generous than the ones many California workers receive. According to CalWatchDog, a site operated by the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank, “60 percent of final pay is just the start for a veteran BART worker who retires.” Asking the workers to make a 5 percent contribution to the pension fund, as BART has done, is hardly the work of a Scrooge.
Surprisingly for the liberal Bay Area, public opinion is against another strike by the BART workers. This may be partially self-interest: 400,000 people take BART on weekdays; add that number to the ones already on the road in the traffic-clogged region, and San Franciscans can count on getting ample time to study the finer details of the bumper of the car in front of them.
Still, even 62 percent of Bay Area Democrats (and many of them live in the district that reelects and supports Nancy Pelosi — we’re not talking any squish blue-dog Democrats here) and 60 percent of residents who belong to a union, or have a family member who does, oppose the strike, according to a poll released last week by the Bay Area Council. And 69 percent of Bay Area residents disagreed with the contention that BART workers weren’t currently making enough.
Even the San Jose Mercury News — the newspaper that I grew up reading, and whose editorial board would generally be likely to endorse a Communist over a Republican if those were the only options — has criticized the union demands. “For months now, we’ve heard workers demonize BART management and directors as union-busters,” said a Mercury News editorial. “That’s false. No one is talking about breaking the backs of labor — only restoring fiscal sanity.”
“For years, BART unions have called the shots, leveraging political advantage to gain fat, unsustainable contracts,” the editorial added. “It’s time for that to end.”
What happens next isn’t clear. Governor Jerry Brown intervened last weekend, just as a second strike was about to begin, and launched an investigation. But that investigation is planned to last only a week, and it isn’t known whether or not Brown will then ask the courts to delay any strike for 60 days.
Regardless of what Brown ultimately does, the public opposition is a good sign. A significant portion of BART’s funding is from taxpayers: Approximately $250 million of the $669 million budget in fiscal year 2013, which just ended, was from taxes, including local sales taxes.
California taxpayers may be learning their lesson too late. But they are finally realizing the state can’t continue paying union workers whatever they ask for, regardless of the state’s economic condition.