Another View: Opportunistic BART strike ban would be bad policy

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am

Orinda City Councilman Steve Glazer is currently campaigning for the state Assembly on a platform of prohibiting BART strikes, a stance that was mentioned favorably in a recent editorial (“Will legislators learn anything from BART strike?” Oct. 22). Glazer tells voters that he alone is standing up for the interests of commuters against the entrenched interests of the BART employee unions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Glazer, an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, is involved in an ill-conceived campaign to exploit the frustration of transit riders after several months of dysfunctional contract negotiations and two four-day strikes. Glazer offers a simple solution to ensure that these events are never repeated – change state law to take away the right to strike from BART employees. Unfortunately, it would not work and is the wrong policy for the Bay Area.

Glazer’s no-strike campaign is opportunistic, not brave. After everything Bay Area commuters have been through, this is an easy moment to be advocating for a ban on BART strikes, without thinking through what that actually means. Instead, we must take a closer look at the price the public would pay by imposing a strike ban on BART workers.

First, a strike ban would almost certainly not improve the situation at BART, and it might make it worse. Glazer frequently references New York’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by all public-sector workers, but it has neither prevented strikes nor improved labor-management relations. Enacted in 1967, the Taylor Law – which replaced an even more severe law – failed to prevent major transit strikes in 1980 and 2005.

Even with the Taylor Law’s draconian penalties – which have attracted international condemnation – New York had seen 250 illegal strikes by 2002. The law has failed to prevent other forms of disruption, such as “work to rule” actions, and has done nothing for employee morale. What it has done is remove pressure on transit management to negotiate in good faith – the cause of the 2005 strike – and resulted in the imposition of millions of dollars in fines and the jailing of labor leaders. Is this the path we want for the Bay Area?

Second, a strike ban is wrong in principle for the Bay Area. The right to strike is an issue of fundamental personal liberty. In a free country such as ours, except for the most compelling reasons, people should not be forced to work against their will. The prohibition of involuntary servitude is there in the 13th Amendment. We restrict strikes by “essential service workers” such as police and firefighters only because the withdrawal of their labor would result in a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the general public.

As a BART rider, I understand the disruption that was caused by these strikes, but does that disruption meet the test for taking away a fundamental liberty? This would likely happen in authoritarian countries, but most democratic countries neither classify transit workers as part of essential services nor take away their right to strike.

We must understand why negotiations were so dysfunctional this time round and improve labor-management cooperation at BART. This cooperation is the key to a transit system that runs efficiently because its employees are satisfied that they are working under conditions they themselves negotiated, not conditions that were imposed on them.


John Logan is professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

Read more articles by John Logan



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