After weeks of dysfunctional negotiations at BART, we are now approaching the final days of the "cooling-off period" before a potential second strike. To recap: Following several months of stalled bargaining, a four-and-a-half-day strike in early July, a thirty-day contract extension that same month, the establishment of a fact-finding committee, and a seven-day extension in early August, Governor Jerry Brown requested a sixty-day cooling off period. BART management had implored the governor to give it the additional sixty days so it could "continue negotiations," negotiate a settlement, and prevent a second disruptive stoppage.
Rather than bargain constructively with the unions representing several thousand employees, however, management has obstructed efforts to set up meetings and offered little at the bargaining table, thus making a second strike — or, more likely, the governor's intervention to prevent a second strike — virtually inevitable. Here are the three main tactics that management has used in its attempt to sabotage any realistic prospect of a negotiated settlement.
1. Refuse to Meet
Before the cooling-off period, BART management pleaded with the governor for more time. But soon after, management refused to meet with the unions, telling them that Brown's injunction did not require that it schedule new bargaining sessions, only that it "maintain the status quo" and avoid a strike or lockout.
Does this mean that management deliberately misled Brown? The justification for its lack of interest in new negotiations was that, prior to the start of the cooling-off period, it had already presented the unions with its "last, best, and final offer," and thus any further negotiations would "not be fruitful." What, one wonders, did BART management think was the purpose of the cooling-off period if not to meet with the unions and present new proposals that might lead to a negotiated settlement?
2. Fail to Bargain
BART's first "new" wage proposal to the unions came on day 53 of the cooling-off period — with only one week left to go. Worse still, the new proposal kept the old offer on base wages: 1.78 percent increases per year for thousands of workers who have gone without a raise since 2008 — along with a regressive healthcare proposal. Management has repeatedly told the media that its wage proposal is actually 2.5 percent per year, but it arrives at this exaggerated figure only by including a pension swap that is favorable to management. Indeed, throughout the negotiations, management has urged the media to look at its wage proposals in isolation, and to ignore its regressive benefit proposals. At the bargaining table, in contrast, it has admitted that its basic wage proposal remains stuck at 1.78 percent.
BART unions, meanwhile, have reduced their wage proposal three times in the past week, and have now halved their original proposal and agreed to contribute 15 percent more to their health benefits. Management knows well that its current offer is unacceptable to a workforce that made major sacrifices during the last round of contract negotiations in 2009 and does not want to fall further behind this time around. Moreover, BART management, instead of participating in constructive negotiations with its unions, has conducted a highly effective campaign of misinformation against its own workforce in the mainstream media.
3. Be "Unavailable"
From the start, BART's expensive Ohio-based chief negotiator, Tom Hock, has played a destructive role in negotiations. BART management claims that this dispute is about negotiating a fair and sustainable contract, not about personalities. But contract negotiations are always partly about personalities, and, from the start of negotiations, Hock's personality has loomed large in a negative way. This is no surprise. Hock has a well-established record of negotiating transit contracts that drive down wages and benefits, but often do so at the cost of destructive and costly strikes. This round of contract negotiations has proved no different.
In addition to his poisonous influence at the bargaining table, Hock has also been inexplicably absent for extended periods. First, he disappeared for almost a third of the thirty-day contract extension period in July. Then he made clear to the unions that he had little interest in meeting for the first six weeks of the cooling-off period. Indeed, as the period started, Hock reportedly said to union negotiators, "See you on day 56." It appears he was only partially joking, and the joke is on Bay Area commuters. Finally, Hock went AWOL during a critical stage in negotiations last week. When the unions asked management's negotiating team when they could expect his return, they were told that the district was not currently in a position to answer that question.
There are now only a few days left before the expiration of the cooling-off period. Unless something unexpected takes place at the bargaining table in the next few days, there will be no negotiated settlement to the dispute. Instead, Governor Brown may intervene to prevent a potentially lengthy work stoppage. But he, and the public, should be perfectly clear about who has squandered this opportunity to resolve the dispute: From day one of the cooling-off period — and, indeed, from the start of bargaining — BART management has shown little interest in constructive negotiations. It should not be rewarded for its efforts to obstruct meetings, stall bargaining, and drive negotiations toward a second strike.