Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: California cannot allow BART strike to drag on and on

Unrealistic demands. A failure to negotiate. A casual disregard for the human consequences of failing to break the impasse.

Budget negotiations in Washington? No, the gridlock of which we speak is closer to home. Despite being so close to a contract agreement with management, Bay Area Rapid Transit workers went on strike Friday morning, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded and fuming.

Who is being more intransigent here? BART managers? Union leaders? It is hard to know for sure without being in the room. To some degree, both sides bear responsibility for wreaking havoc on the transportation system of California’s second-largest region. But not equal responsibility.

The main stumbling block appears to be efforts by BART management to change work rules that limit the agency’s flexibility. Changing those work rules can be difficult, because of a clause in the BART contract that requires labor and management to agree whenever a “past practice” is changed.

One of those past practices is a four-day, 10-hour-day workweek for most employees, which workers value because it helps them with scheduling day care and other family matters. But BART officials argue persuasively that this “past practice” makes it hard for BART to staff up when it needs to run extra trains on holidays or big event days in the Bay Area, which happen frequently.

Union officials say they want to preserve some past practices, such as preventing managers from assigning workers to jobs they don’t want when they have filed workplace complaints. That is reasonable. But other demands by the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 make little sense. Union leaders are balking at requiring station agents to file reports by email, and they are balking at a management request to stop hand delivering paycheck stubs and switch to electronic pay stubs.

Last time we checked, Silicon Valley was part of the Bay Area. Isn’t it time for BART workers to enter the electronic era?

Union officials need to wake up to the fact that the public will not tolerate this strike for long. The longer it lasts, the greater the likelihood that state lawmakers will pass legislation to compel BART workers to honor the no-strike clause in their existing contracts. (The unions claim that clause doesn’t apply because the contracts ended this summer.)

Numerous big cities nationwide – including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. – have laws forbidding transit workers from striking, and for good reason. A region’s economy is threatened when transit systems are shut down, and commuters can be endangered when they have to drive or seek out alternate methods to get to work.

BART workers should urge their union leadership to come back to the bargaining table. If they don’t, state lawmakers will need to end this strike before it causes lasting damage to the Bay Area and Northern California.