How NOT To Lead A Strike: The Story of BART Unions, 2013

By Berta Hernandez and Federico Fernandez

sf-bart-strike-2013
The story of the 2013 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike is not a story of transit cars and rails — but of the workers and riders who animate them, imbuing cold steel with movement and meaning. It’s a life-and-death story, resulting in two workers being criminally crushed on the tracks, betrayed by union bureaucrats who ultimately let down thousands of militant rank-and-file members. BART workers’ demands were dispiritingly and quite publicly defeated — with their two-faced “allies” in the Democratic Party playing an indispensable role in the loss. The BART strike story is a cautionary tale: frightful, but full of lessons that workers from all industries can study and debate to prepare for future stand-offs. If our aim is to win, one way or another we have to learn: How NOT To Lead A Strike.

 

HIGH STAKES

Two people lost their lives on Saturday, October 19, 2013, owing to the criminal negligence of the BART Administration and its Board of Directors. One of the people killed — crushed to death by a wayward train car — was a BART worker. The other, killed by the same car, was a contractor who crossed the picket line to perform an inspection of the tracks. Within less than 48 hours of the incident, the BART administrators produced what they had stubbornly refused to offer for the past seven months: a tentative agreement contract for BART workers.

Novelist Zadie Smith has written:

“[L]ike the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply the beginning of an even longer story.” 

The end of the 2013 BART conflict does not mark the end of the struggle. We believe that the result of this ongoing fight will affect us all. It will affect Bay Area workers in general, regardless of whether or not they work at BART; regardless of whether or not they are unionized. It will affect BART riders and the community of the Bay Area: particularly the most disenfranchised sectors, vulnerable to mercurial ticket and parking prices. For these reasons, we stand to benefit from carefully examining this strike and drawing some conclusions that will prepare us for future battles (or at least help us understand this particular calamity).

The first question we have to ask ourselves is:

Why?

If the renewing of a collective bargaining agreement for this public sector union is nothing special (it happens every four years), then why, this time around, did it acquire such importance, such high stakes, that it ended in fatal tragedy? We need to understand the real interests at play, and how and by whom they are represented. This writing is our modest contribution to a collective understanding.

 

THE SITUATION

Negotiations for a new BART contract began in April on a sour note, when BART management hired Tom Hock as lead negotiator.  A prominent business executive from Veolia corporation, a transnational company notorious for (among other dubious activities) privatizing public transportation in cities around the world, Hock had earned a reputation for effectiveness in attacking and undermining unions. As lead negotiator, he would serve BART administrators Grace Crunican (General Manager) and the BART Board of Directors.

Despite the eyebrow-raising hire, workers expected a more-or-less favorable offer from BART, to make up for their concessionary contract four years previous. That ill-fated contract renewal had coincided with the peak of the 2008 recession. BART unions, spooked by what they saw as adverse economic and political conditions for a strike, conceded about $100 million dollars by accepting a freeze in their salaries.

According to management figures, BART had run deficits during the last recession and grimly predicted more of the same in future years. But these predictions didn’t bear out; on the contrary, things started looking up. Beginning in 2011, the number of passengers per day increased — elevating ridership to an all-time high, and boosting revenue accordingly. As further encouragement, sales tax revenue that funds part of the BART system climbed back up to pre-recession levels. All told, the current projection is that BART will accrue surpluses of $125 million annually for the next ten years. (!!! !!! !!!!)

With BART sitting on record profits, 2013 thus seemed a good time for austerity-bedraggled workers to reclaim their fair share, hoisting wages back up to cover inflation. BART unions used the shining economic projections as their first argument for wage increases, and in addition to these economic demands, BART workers also raised issues related to workplace safety. A similar strategy shaped the unions’ line for negotiation and public relations. They hoped the simple and reasonable logic of Major Company Surplus + Rising Cost of Living would swiftly win workers the support of transit riders and the general public.

But the reality was not so simple.

Beyond the BART budget still hung, like a thick, noxious smog, the larger economic trends of austerity and budget cuts to public services.

Additionally, we have to remember that both the Democratic and Republican parties have taken recent steps against the privileges of public sector workers, denouncing and eroding their relatively higher wages, health benefits and pensions.

 

BIPARTISAN OFFENSIVE AGAINST WORKERS

For the parties of the bosses, Republican and Democrat, two sides of the same sorry coin, this struggle is not only about the public employees at BART. Last December, California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown pushed the state legislature to approve a series of cuts to public pensions and increase the age for receiving full retirement benefits from 55 to 67 years old. On top of imposing benefit cuts, a new formula would calculate benefits by excluding overtime hours worked.

Governor Brown is not the only Democrat to pull such stunts. There have been local initiatives with similar objectives in municipalities governed by Democrats from Long Beach to Northern California — even in supposedly liberal bastions like San Jose. For instance, a group of four California mayors (three Democrats and one Republican) is planning to introduce to the state ballot an initiative called the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Designed to reduce the budgetary burden of pensions on municipalities, the act would promote flexibility in pension negotiations, prohibiting state agencies from intervening in local governments’ pension negotiations. This essentially means bypassing the legislative process of the state assembly: where unions, using their weight in the Democratic Party political machine, could block pension-reducing legislation.

Besides bipartisan attacks on pensions, we naturally have the Republican Party engaging in open war against unions, as political adversaries of the Democratic Party and as direct economic adversaries of many public-sector workforces. Remember the harsh anti-union offensives in places like Wisconsin?

One inglorious example of the defanging of collective bargaining is the “right to work” state laws imposed in Michigan and Indiana over the past year. Far from suggesting that anyone seeking a job is entitled to have one, “right to work” is actually doublespeak for anti-union legislation that prohibits mandatory union membership in any given workplace. Workers would be able to evade union dues while still benefiting from any gains of collective bargaining. While we agree that union membership should be much more democratic and engaged than an automatic payroll deduction, these laws are not intended to bolster union democracy. Their true aim is to economically strangle the unions (and the Republicans’ opponents in the Democratic Party).

In California and especially the Bay Area, the Democrats remain the dominant political force, which puts them at the center of labor conflicts like the BART showdown. The labor bureaucracy that runs today’s unions, ever loyal to political “friends of labor,” tends to respond first and foremost to the Democratic machine, and secondarily (if at all) to the interests of its own union members. This is the main reason why the current labor “leaders” are unable to actually lead. To mobilize workers and communities. To facilitate any attempt at a real, resolute fight. Almost unfailingly they merely initiate strikes as a bluff, for show: not in order to risk and win, but just to keep up appearances and maintain a shred of credibility with their members. When BART unions ATU 1555 and SEIU 1021 succeeded in initiating an honest-to-goodness, indefinite strike in July, it put the Sacramento Democrats on notice in a way we rarely see.

Democrat labor barons inhabit not just the state capitol, of course, but all levels of political office. During the BART conflict, certain union leaders decried the negotiating strategy of the BART Board of Directors — 8 of 9 of whom are Democrats — as comparable to the Wisconsin Republican offensive. Here we should be careful not to exaggerate. While it is true that the Board of Directors serve the interests of the Bay Area Council, a bipartisan organization and regional equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce, this does not mean that they are proposing the immediate elimination of collective bargaining for BART workers. Things have not yet sunk so low. Still, solid reasons to trust Democrats are generally scant. As career politicians, BART Board members may be inclined to use their position as a stepping stone to higher offices, and think more of their ascendant prospects than serving the people.

 

THE ANTI-UNION OPERATIVE

The Board of Directors’ strategy, as far as we can see, amounted to this: use Hock to undermine the unions, and impose a qualitative change in the balance of power between management and the workers. Hock’s modus operandi is already familiar in the transportation industry. It is a comprehensive offensive starting with imposing his own rules on the negotiations (including banning union communication with the media), while finding a convenient way to circumvent these rules himself. Then, he conducts “surface negotiations” — that is, negotiations without the intention of reaching an agreement. These lukewarm overtures make it easy to accuse union counterparts of intolerance and greed. The final stroke is a public campaign of systematic media smears, accusing workers of stubborn unreason and selling out the riders.

The main goal of the managers was not just to settle on a contract that was bad for the unions, but also to politically undermine the unions in case they decide to strike, forcing them to take this already serious risk under the most hostile conditions possible. The BART administration portrays itself as advocating for the public interest, while the unions (they lament with a sad shake of the head) are privilege-hoarding, tax-vacuuming, hysterically selfish special interest groups.

 

OUTMANEUVERED FOR LACK OF BIGGER VISION

The only way the unions could have countered this political offensive would have been to come out in public with a vigorous, sustained and systematic campaign for workers’ rights against austerity. They could have presented these rights to the public as the legitimate aspirations of all workers as a class. What a wasted opportunity. Instead, the union bureaucracy showed a distinct disinterest in advancing a public debate in terms of the struggle of one class against another class. Nowhere did they outline a broader agenda of promoting more unionizing of private sector workers in order to access better pay and other hard-won gains.

Such a creative vision seemed to exceed and escape the rote notions of BART’s union bureaucracy, with their political imagination delimited by the Democratic Party. Not too strange, then, that the labor bureaucrats would adapt their discourse to the current popular rhetoric in liberal and labor circles: defending middle-class jobs. Unfortunately, this amounts to nothing more than a rationalization of their privileged status within the working class — as the unemployed and poor of the Bay Area keep grasping at the straws of barely livable income.

When Governor Brown requested an investigative board to look into the BART negotiations, a union lawyer declared to the board that they, the unions, “… are not ashamed to be bargaining to defend a middle-class wage and benefits package.” Such limited aspirations, though appealing enough to certain audiences, still subtly drive a wedge into the working class. Is this all we can hope for? Defending certain middle-class privileges, without fighting to strengthen the working class as a whole? Such, regrettably, is the petit bourgeois mentality of the labor aristocracy, ultimately unconcerned with the rest of the working class.

Conceding and exacerbating the fragmentation of the class is consistent with most labor leaders’ orientation to keep their own struggle separate and isolated from other struggles. During the BART fight, we saw this in the failure to link with Amalgamated Transit Union 192 (Bay Area buses), who were also involved in contract negotiations and preparing for strike action in the public transport sector.

 

THE UNIONS

Whom do the BART unions represent? There are about 2,500 workers in three unions. The unions that represent BART workers are:

ATU 1555, representing about 920 train operators and station agents,

SEIU 1021, which represents more than 1,400 workers in a variety of categories, from maintenance to cleaning to administrative (SEIU represents over 52,000 workers in Northern California)

AFCSME 3993, the smallest of all representing less than 100 supervisors and professional staff.

For our purposes, we’ll focus primarily on ATU 1555, because it is the union that had the greatest potential to lead a strong fight, and thus represents the gravest disappointment.

Antoinette Bryant, president of ATU 1555, is the head of a union leadership characterized by fragmentation, inconsistency and instability. The leadership of this union tends to be replaced after a few years; the current leadership of the union took over just three years ago as part of the rejection by the membership to the concessionary contract of 2009. The new president did not arrive with a leadership team capable of advancing democracy within the union, through the preparation and development of member-driven systems capable of resisting the attack by BART administrators. As we mentioned, ATU 1555 also showed a notable and discouraging disinterest in organizing solidarity and unity with other struggles.

For the present negotiations Antoinette Bryant wrote a little-disseminated opinion piece published by the San Francisco Chronicle on June 18, two weeks before the strike. The scarcely shared article contained the main talking points on the negotiations with the BART administration. Bryant denounced the heavy handed maneuvers of the BART administrators: labeling them bad-faith politicians who “instinctively play games rather than compromise,” and asking them to “put away the political agenda and address the urgent needs of this great transit system.” Despite this tough talk, Bryant never managed to best her adversaries. Throughout the whole process of negotiations, she led every failed effort to compromise, and proved all too willing to give concessions.

In addition to misjudging the power of their opponents, Bryant and the leadership of ATU 1555 also stayed curiously out of touch with their own base. The workers from ATU 1555, speaking in social and economic terms, are, as we mentioned, a relatively privileged layer of workers as compared with the prevailing wages in the Bay Area. Everybody talks about this, except of course, the leadership of the union itself. Burying their heads in the sand, they tried to avoid dealing with the implications and political challenges this represents. The multiple contradictions of their position are reflected in the fragmentation of the union leadership itself: fragmentation evident throughout the conflict, during public rallies and during the strike.

Besides the milieu around the ATU 1555 union president, there are two other distinct sectors in the union leadership: one represented by Chris Finn, Recording Secretary, and the other by Yuri Hollie, station agent representative. Both are members of the bargaining committee and the Executive Committee. Finn appeared as a union leader attempting to build connections with community organizations and other workers, and doing joint work with other BART unions in the organizing of public rallies. But the orientation to hold public rallies was short-lived: not everyone in the union leadership was on the same page. Antoinette Bryant played only a very minor role during the first public rally in August. She then short-circuited a second rally planned for October (around the re-ramping up of strike forces), only to see it half-revived via a joint effort by Finn and Hollie, who were left trying to hot-house a community-oriented strike campaign that should have been grown and nurtured over months. Such inconsistencies in public orientation thus revealed the constant and intense competition among union leaders.

For their part, both Finn and Hollie led efforts to reach out to various groups in the Left: community based organization and activists groups. But these efforts were uncoordinated and inconsistent. As a result, none of them created a real democratic structure to elicit sustained solidarity from the community, or to steadily organize the union membership to play a role in these outreach efforts. The union militancy of ATU 1555 practically dissipated after the August 1st rally as the whole leadership shifted their focus away from organizing and toward negotiations. A few short months later, ATU 1555 membership participation in the October 8th rally was a dispiriting husk of its summertime bloom.

Chris Finn, a former member of the Left Party, began his union activity as part of a left-wing caucus in ATU 1555. But you’d hardly know it, looking at the way he conducted himself in a leadership position. In the 2013 contract negotiation and strike there was little differentiation, politically, between him and union president Antoinette Bryant. Both favored the approval of the tentative agreement of Oct. 21, and neither of them (or the other union leaders) blasted Gavin Newsom when he said that a BART strike should not happen again.

Yuri Hollie, the other EC member, has been an outspoken opponent against any type of concessions in the new contract, but was ineffective in putting together actual resistance to these concessions. When the conflict escalated, she was removed from the negotiations committee by the union president. She found herself isolated and incapable of mounting her own defense because of the inconsistency of her tactics. Had she built a more solid base of workers ready and willing to strike, things might have been different.

The upcoming elections of the officers of ATU 1555 scheduled for late November have been in the background of these competing positions and differences in the leadership. The union election process started with the nomination of candidates at the regular membership meeting in November, and the election takes place in December. Sadly, this fact seemed to represent a bigger priority, in the minds of the various leaders, than the strike itself.

(UPDATE: After two rounds of voting as of January 8, 2014, ATU 1555 has not been able to elect a union President, and a third, tie-breaking vote is taking place by mail. Current President Bryant and Finn were tied at 307 votes each in the second round of the election.)

As for the other unions, SEIU 1021 represents the largest fraction of BART workers; its current leadership has been at the helm for many years and has been the veteran chief negotiators of the BART contracts. The union local represents a total of 52,000 workers in Northern California. Roxanne Sanchez, the union president, has been directly involved in the contract negotiations and played a leading role along with Josie Mooney and John Arantes (BART Chapter president) for the past 15 years. They are also a dominant force in the regional Labor Councils that they effectively immobilized during the BART confrontation.

Even the smallest of the three BART unions and historically the most conservative, AFSCME 3993, summarily deposed President Jean Hamilton Gómez when he called union members to cross the picket line of the other two unions. Now-president Patricia Schuchardt led the union to join the July BART strike and called on the members to respect the picket line of the other two unions. She also played a leading role in denouncing BART management efforts to certify train controllers in order to break the strike, and wrote warning letters to the Public Utilities Commission on this issue. Despite certain promising instincts in leadership, however, its small size and the composition of its members (mostly supervisors) limited this union’s ability to perform any kind of leadership role during the conflict.

Meanwhile, the conservative leadership of ATU 1555 has no excuse. Even after a near-unanimous vote of the two main unions, vowing to strike if necessary, ATU 1555 repeatedly blocked any attempt to create a strike fund: thus making a strike unsustainable. With this kind of myopic, unrealistic approach, the short strike is just a flashy accessory to the contract negotiations behind closed doors.

 

JULY STRIKE

 

The only thing workers have to bargain with is their skill or their labor. Denied the right to withhold it as a last resort, they become powerless. The strike is therefore not a breakdown of collective bargaining — it is the indispensable cornerstone of that process.

— Paul Clark, 1989

When the BART workers’ contract expired July 1st, a thunderhead of labor resistance loomed unmistakably. The governor took no measures to prevent the strike, and given the absence of a tentative agreement, the three BART unions stopped the trains. The strike was very militant, with 80% membership participation on the picket lines — extraordinarily high. The public’s attitude towards the strike, according to the workers themselves, was generally supportive. However, after only four and a half days, the strike was abruptly halted by the leadership of ATU 1555 and SEIU 1021, without consulting with the rank and file. Some leaders later claimed that the strike was called off because they believed that it would be more effective in the autumn, when ridership was higher.

What we do know is that the strike was called off after Democrat state officials, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Controller John Chiang, and State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, pressured unions and BART management to end the strike and return to the negotiations table: pulling strings on both sides of the dispute. SEIU, the union with the leading voice in the negotiations, through its President Roxanne Sanchez, responded that they would return to the table immediately if Democrat officials got personally involved in the negotiations. The result was an agreement to extend the contract for 30 days, continuing negotiations and suspending the strike for a “cooling off period.” The effect was indeed “cooling” —  dousing the flame of militancy in the rank and file, and restoring leverage to management.

There was no organized response from rank-and-file workers against the “cooling off period” that ended the July strike. Individually, responses were mixed. For some workers, the decision felt like a betrayal. For others, giving their leadership the benefit of the doubt, it was seen as an innocent but serious error: in the long run would benefiting the administrators, and sowing confusion among workers and their supporters.

 

THE AUGUST 1st RALLY

The 30 day contract extension, supposedly a time for both sides to get serious and hammer out a deal, produced no such result. Hock flitted in and out of town on various vacations, and the unions failed to strong-arm BART managers into real negotiations. Eventually, ATU 1555 leaders joined with the other two unions to call for a solidarity rally on August 1st, in downtown Oakland. The call produced a convergence of unions with community based organizations, a few left wing groups and activists (among them the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, a collection of individual activists from the ILWU, Teamsters, ATU 1555, ATU 192, Ferry workers and others, without much of a rank file participation from their unions).

The rally was attended by about a thousand participants with a strong membership presence of all three BART unions. During the rally union leaders announced that they had given the 72 hours notice to begin strike action. While the rally served to reinvigorate the most active members of the union, the cooling-off period imposed by Governor Brown in the 67 days that followed (combined with the inaction of the union leadership) effectively killed the involvement of the rank and file, reducing them to spectators while negotiations proceeded in complete secrecy. The union bureaucrats conveniently avoided hosting any special membership meetings to report on the situation with the negotiations. And when a special membership meeting was called at last, it was limited to informational purposes, ruling out any attempts of the rank and file to debate, vote, or decide on the direction of the struggle.

The administration, challenged by the July strike, did not miss any opportunity to retaliate against the key organizers of this strike. George Figueroa — a station agent and one of the main organizers of the strike — was slapped with a bogus charge of falsifying a police report. Criminal charges against him were pushed with the DA. Bryant and the ATU union leadership decided to stand aside, not even contacting Figueroa, let alone making any efforts to defend him.

While the unions kept silent, the administration hardened its anti-labor campaign through the media and their political allies, including a proposal to ban all strikes at BART. A recent article titled The shocking role of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Area News Group in the BART dispute, published in the East Bay Express, tells the story of how “media scribes worked hard to trivialize the legitimate demands of the workers, and engaged in obfuscation and exaggeration.”

 

THE COOLING OFF PERIOD
AND THE OCTOBER 8th RALLY

As the August 4th deadline for negotiations approached, the Governor decided to intervene in order to prevent a second strike. First, he issued a seven-day pause, calling for a routine investigative committee. The committee would determine whether the strike would represent an economic risk that could damage the welfare of the region, and on this basis establish the necessity for a 60-day cooling-off period. During their testimony at this time, the unions warned against the dangers of running scab trains conducted by administrators in order to break the strike.

AFSCME was the only union that rejected the charges that the BART strike would pose a risk of harm to the welfare of the region, while SEIU declined to take a stand and ATU 1555 concurred that the strike would have adverse consequences for the region.

From this moment on, it became clear that for the union bureaucracy everything was about compromise. They wanted to prevent a strike, not use it as the “cornerstone” of negotiations, and a source of power. The main talking points of the unions were self-defeating statements saying that they did not want to strike, or that they were being forced into a strike. Nobody was discussing how to build a stronger strike, as they had been suggesting back in July.

Continually stonewalled by the BART negotiators, the union bargaining committee felt compelled to yield more and more concessions in an effort to reach an agreement. They would avoid a strike at all costs. The union bureaucrats wanted to succeed in the negotiations through the pressure exerted from above (leadership) and behind closed doors, rather than out in the open. But this approach actually betrayed weakness, a fear of facing the public. Leadership missed their chance for a position of strength: the clear, confident organizing and self-determination of a militant strike that would raise broader political issues.

For example, during negotiations the unions accepted, for the very first time, agreements to make contributions towards pensions which had previously been paid entirely by the employer. This and other concessions, combined with the secrecy of the negotiations and the lack of democratic control of the members, culminated in an internal conflict. The president of ATU 1555 decided to settle this conflict by expelling Yuri Hollie from the negotiating committee.

As stated in a harsh letter on October 7, signed by president Bryant, Yuri Hollie was posting information about the course of negotiations via Twitter and Facebook. Bryant claimed that these actions were “extremely detrimental to the negotiation process at this critical stage of Negotiations.” In addition, the letter said that her actions violated her oath as a member of the union and as a member of the executive committee. The letter also said that the decision to separate her was co-signed by the majority of the executive committee. There was no due process in this decision because Hollie was denied the right to defend herself.

This action, as one may imagine, was not well received by the rank and file of the union. In the next membership meeting they voted overwhelmingly to demand Hollie’s reinstatement to the negotiations committee. This was overruled by the international leadership of ATU, with the argument that the Union president has the authority to take these measures to avoid “anarchy.”

Meanwhile, with bargaining still going nowhere, the union negotiators urged the intervention of a federal mediator, and also invited Democratic Party politicians to attend the negotiations. In attendance were representatives of mayors, the deputy governor of California, and so many assemblypersons in the negotiating room that a journalist joked they would soon have a quorum for the state assembly. All of these attempts failed, however, to turn the situation around.

 

THE FALL STRIKE

October 10th, the final day of the cooling-off period, brought a big surprise when BART negotiators presented what they called the administration’s Last, Best and Final Offer — demanding that it be taken to the membership for a vote. The union bureaucrats, instead of attempting immediately to recover for lost time and finally organize workers for a militant strike, continued to trust that the Democratic Party politicians would help them to obtain a resolution at the negotiation table.

Four more 24-hour extensions followed, which meant that for the first time in many years, BART workers worked without a contract. The breaking point came on Thursday, October 19, when the BART administration — emboldened by their success in the battle for the public opinion, with polls showing an excess of 70% opposed to the workers — decided to double up on their bet and force the BART workers to strike. They added a last-minute demand for major concessions related to working conditions, scheduling and other work rules.

With this, the unions were thrown into a strike the next day. They were isolated, lacking support, public sympathy — even the organization of their own members, let alone real and effective solidarity from other unions or labor councils, students, workers, or leftist activists. They placed themselves in a ridiculously weak position, exactly where the BART administration wanted them. What could have been one of the most important regional demonstration of independent worker power contending with the capitalist bosses — a catalyst for building a militant labor movement — was destroyed by the union bureaucrats in order to maintain business-as-usual.

The union rally at Lake Merritt on Friday October 20, the first day of the strike, amounted to a smattering of less than fifty people. In other places, picket lines had to be consolidated due to the lack of participation. The extreme lack of preparation announced itself like a neon sign. No chants on the picket lines, confusion among workers, no interaction with the public to make a case for the strike. No printed material.

The most reasonable explanation is that a conscious decision was made by the union leadership to avoid strike preparations. The more openly they declared that they did not want to strike, the more BART management felt empowered to extract major concessions. In the days leading up to the strike the web page of ATU 155 was headlined with a sentence reading No Strike. SEIU 1021 had a similar approach; some of their union signs read Contract equals no strike.

 

A TRAGEDY OVERTAKES THE STRIKE

As noted at the beginning of this tale, the dramatic end of the BART strike came swiftly after the second day, when a train ran over and killed a worker and a BART contractor. Both of them were breaking the strike while doing an inspection of the tracks (a task that would normally be done by other workers).

This is the first time in the history of BART where workers have been killed in the middle of a strike. The incident itself was not a freak accident, but a predictable consequence of managerial recklessness. The procedures that led to the deaths had been investigated years ago by state regulators, and deemed unsafe. This was no innocent mishap, but a clear case of criminal negligence by the BART administration. The workers who were killed entered the area of the train tracks under the usual protocol known as “simple approval,” by which track maintenance workers are forced to work while the trains continue to run at full speed under automatic control. Under this hazardous procedure, the workers are solely responsible for their own safety and must clear the tracks when they visually notice an approaching train. In the past, the “simple approval” procedure resulted in the deaths of two other workers (2001 and 2008). There has also been talk of a number of close calls.

In a terrible irony, this was one of the main issues the unions were demanding to address in the negotiation of the new contract. Because of these incidents, BART had already been the subject of multiple citations for safety violations by OSHA, a state regulator. BART management refused to modify the safety protocols and instead filed multiple appeals to avoid compliance. There is a predictable profit-chasing incentive at play here: BART management wants to maintain computer control over as many of its operations as possible, in order to reduce costs and maximize efficiency. Thus, they continued to patch up the flawed safety protocols instead of completely revamping operations in order to avoid more deaths. (BART is finally doing this and the “simple approval” safety protocol has been cancelled permanently after these last two deaths).

The other aspects of negligence are the union-busting attempts that had inexperienced individuals working as train operators and train controllers — a practice also denounced by the unions as unsafe and dangerous for the riders of BART. Management was clearly willing to risk people’s safety in its preparations for a prolonged strike.

In response to the deaths of the two workers, union bureaucrats decided to call for a low-key vigil the following day, suspending all planned actions on the picket lines. This, we feel, was a big mistake. Failing to call for a mass protest against the criminal negligence of BART management was a cowardly decision masquerading as “respect” for the slain workers and their families. The union bureaucrats clearly sensed that they suddenly had an advantage, a newly strengthened position at the negotiations table, and presumably they did not want to waste it on political denunciations or calls for criminal investigation.

Christopher Sheppard, 58, one of the workers who died, was a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME 3993. This union, the smallest of the three BART unions, was not on strike but its union leaders had pledged to respect the picket line. His death is a tragic confirmation that the workers who normally operate and maintain the service are the ones most familiar with the risks of improvising. It’s dangerous to suddenly replace experienced workers, familiar with current conditions on the ground, with inexperienced ones or those who have not been doing these jobs for a long time. Laurence Daniels, the other person who died in the same incident, was a 66 years old private contractor.

The investigation of the accident is now in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency, which imposed a gag order — but not before revealing that the train involved was actually a training operation that involved managers. The long term plan was obviously to replace workers during the strike, running a scaled-back minimum of trains on what they called a “skeletal service” between downtown Oakland and San Francisco. BART management appears bent on greater automation: both for cost savings, and to make it easier to replace workers (thus undermining union power).

During the first meeting of the Board of Directors after the end of the strike, and with the death of two people in the air, Zachary Mellett, District 7 Director, added insult to injury with an off-hand remark that operating a BART train is “fun and simple.” The recent deadly incident was nowhere in the regular agenda of the meeting. Instead, the board opened a special session to memorialize the deceased workers. Many union members took the floor to deplore the cynicism of the board since these deaths were a product of their own negligence and the issue of accountability was not even raised officially. The California Department of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is considering bringing criminal charges, a demand raised only by AFCSME so far — not by SEIU or ATU.

 

BART WORKERS APPROVE THE TENTATIVE AGREEMENT

The tentative agreement was submitted to a vote of SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 and was approved by an overwhelming margin by members of both unions (88 percent of SEIU, and 85 percent of ATU). The Board of Directors naturally approved it as well. (Though Zachary Mellett, one of the most anti-labor Board Directors, vowed to oppose the new contract on the grounds that it gives too much to the workers.)

The new contract contains concessions by workers in the area of benefits and pensions, compensated by an increase in wages — but without adjusting for the rate of inflation. The contract also makes concessions in terms of labor flexibility, an old demand of the administration.

In short, it is a net loss for workers.

But then… why did they vote for it with overwhelming numbers?  Was it because they thought it was not worth it to persist in the face of an adverse public opinion, soured by their own mistakes? Was it because the union leaders convinced them that it was the best they could hope for, given the conditions? Was it because they felt continuing the strike would be insensitive after the two deaths? Or because strike fatigue had already set in?

The reasons may remain a mystery to interested observers, but as for the insiders — they seemed altogether oblivious to the riddle itself: preferring their own oversimplified projections to the difficulties of reality. Antoinette Bryant, ATU 1555 union president, declared the strike a victory in an unrelated public rally. (Unsurprising, perhaps, given that leadership often claims wins in order to keep their privileged positions as union officials, but bizarre and abhorrent nevertheless.)

In our view, the contract was not a victory. It would be more accurately called an economic net loss, and politically close to a tie (in which management “scored a goal” on themselves, with their deadly and criminal oversight). More importantly it is a result that will surely have negative impacts in future labor battles in the Bay Area. For us, what matters the most is not the economic particulars, but the overall political results of the strike.

The unions were about to be routed. They were being vilified by the media as the ones responsible for the strike. The issue of banning strikes in BART was gaining traction and could have been propelled forward with momentum that the bureaucrats would be incapable of countering. If this had gone through, the consequences would have rippled across the whole labor movement. The situation was saved momentarily by management’s political disaster. Management played a hardball game that backfired on them unexpectedly. However, in the near future, the labor aristocracy will continue to be a target — especially workers in the public sector. Although, as long as the labor bureaucracy plays a useful role for the bipartisan regime, in terms of controlling and buffering the working class as a whole, it will continue to be given a diminished slice of the overall shrinking pie.

The union leadership claiming a victory is an insult to the intelligence of the workers, and sows a seed for a disastrous defeat in the future. (With successes like these, who needs losses?) It does not do anything to help workers realize how close they came to political disaster themselves. It does not explain the spectacular letdowns they suffered through their reliance on the good favors of politicians from the Democratic Party political machine.

Gavin Newsom, no small figure in the behind-the-scenes dealings, declared after a tentative agreement was reached that this should never happen again: referring not to the fact that two people had died, but to the fact that BART workers dared to go on strike without his consent, and despite the wishes of other politicians like him. (In an apparent retreat, he was forced to declare that a strike ban on BART workers would not provide a “magic bullet.”)

The extreme measure of a strike ban for BART workers cannot happen without the overwhelming support of the Democratic Party, and given the composition of the Democratic Party political machine, it appears to be unlikely at this point. Such an approach would be highly divisive and could shatter the illusions portraying the Democratic Party as the friends of labor. The Democrats are not ideologues, but rather pragmatists: and are more likely to prefer the occasional strike that they could keep under their thumb, via labor bureaucrats. To do away with this arrangement would be to risk unsettling the control that the labor bureaucrats have over their workers.

 

CONCLUSIONS

A strike is a battle. It represents one of the highest points in the class struggle. It is the moment in which the disparity of interests between workers and employers is expressed openly and directly as a confrontation between the economic interests of workers who seek better wages and working conditions, and employers who attempt to increase profits and protect their interests as capitalists. In the case of BART workers, as public employees, the employer is the capitalist state, which is controlled by the political parties of the capitalists.

Zooming out a bit: the main reasons why public sector workers are under attack relate to shrinking state budgets, due not only to an unprecedented concentration of wealth in a small population (wealth stolen by bankers, for instance, in the foreclosure crisis), but also reflecting a long-term economic decline of the United States. Historically, the public sector grew massively in the United States over the past 50 years under more favorable economic conditions. It created a privileged layer of workers, with better wages, medical benefits and pensions as well as better working conditions and work stability. That era is coming to an end — and that is what the strike by BART workers reflects.

The labor bureaucracy represents the economic interests of this sector of workers. The privileges of the bureaucrats stand above even these relatively privileged workers and are secured thanks to their vertical integration with the interests of the state and the capitalists (a.k.a., being in bed with the bosses). Their behavior during the strike aligned predictably and repugnantly with these interests.

To fight smarter in the future, we must learn from the errors of this battle. We see how secret bargaining negotiations kept workers in the dark and dampened their organization and mobilization for a militant strike. We see how the bureaucrats used the threat of a strike as a bargaining chip, yet suppressed dissent and independent actions by the rank and file. We are weary of these same old betrayals. There is a need to break with the parties of the bosses and tirelessly cultivate the strength of the workers. Otherwise, militant strikes will go completely extinct, and concessionary contracts will overgrow every sector.

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One thought on “How NOT To Lead A Strike: The Story of BART Unions, 2013

  1. Excellent article. Tells the story of what happened perfectly. The workers were left out of everything that was going on at the negotiating table. We did everything they told us to do while they broke all the rules and used the press to their advantage

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