The BART contract dispute is finally over — but it should not have taken as long as it did. The dispute also should never have resulted in a second strike, but one was forced by BART management.
A framework for a potential settlement fashioned by the federal mediators was on the table last Thursday, but at the last minute BART management balked. And then after the start of the second strike, management should have settled by Sunday night. The sticking point was management's insistence that it have the unilateral authority to change employees' schedules to reflect shifting workloads at anytime, anywhere, and in any way it wanted with thirty days' notice. The unions could never agree to this, and their members would never have ratified such a contract. But the union negotiators continued to bargain toward a compromise that was acceptable to both parties.
Contrary to media reports that nothing significant was going on after the second strike started, much actually happened over the weekend. Well into the early hours of Monday morning, the unions met with the one remaining federal mediator, Greg Lim, who had worked tirelessly throughout the dispute. By contrast, BART General Manager Grace Crunican took Sunday off — continuing a well-established pattern of absenteeism. Then on Monday, BART management's team finally arrived at 2 p.m., but appeared to be unready to consider a union proposal on the outstanding issues. For several months, BART management had displayed a remarkable lack of urgency in resolving this dispute.
And contrary to statements by BART management — repeated uncritically in the mainstream media — the second strike had nothing whatsoever to do with unions attempting to defend archaic work rules. According to BART management, several thousand workers striked because of their determination to maintain the most outdated and inflexible work rules of any transit system in the country. This was a complete fabrication. Both unions — SEIU and ATU — had accepted significant concessions on important work rules, a point conceded by Crunican at the final meeting between the parties last Thursday. By then, only a few work rules continued to separate the two sides, and the unions tried to meet management's concerns on those rules and offered to submit any remaining disagreements to expedited arbitration. Last week's framework for a proposed deal, rejected by BART management, was not one that served the interests of the unions — it contained several significant concessions that they disliked — but it was a deal that served the interests of the public and would have kept the trains running.
Now that the strike is over, the trains are running, and the contract settlement is in place, it is important that we don't forget how dysfunctional these negotiations have been at every stage. Several critical questions must be answered:
Why did the BART management spend almost $400,000 — including thousands of dollars on lavish and wasteful expenses — on the services of a controversial out-of-state negotiator, Tom Hock, who acted as an obstacle to a settlement from the start?
Why was Hock absent for extended periods during bargaining, including in the final week, when he reportedly gave a speech at Disneyland on "The Art of Negotiating the Deal"? And why did BART allow Hock's employer, Veolia Transportation, to profit from the strike by supplying substitute buses?
How much did BART management spend on its disingenuous public relations campaign to convince transit riders that its employees are overpaid, greedy, uneducated, and hell-bent on protecting outdated and inefficient work rules?
Why did BART management refuse to meet with the unions for the first month of the 60-day cooling off period and then refuse to present a new offer until Day 53?
Why was Crunican completely absent from negotiations for five full months, only to finally appear at the bargaining table during the last days before the second strike?
Why was the BART Board of Directors nowhere to be seen during the entire process, except when board President Tom Radulovich emerged last Thursday to give a woefully misleading account of why negotiations had broken down?
How on earth did BART Director Zakhary Mallett – who stated on Friday that management should play "hardball with the union to see who blinks first" — get elected to this important position in the first place? And is he really as clueless about labor-management relations as his sophomoric comment suggests?
Why did BART management sabotage negotiations at several critical points? Management proposed an important deal on the penultimate day of the cooling-off period, then withdrew it and blamed the mediator for a miscommunication; presented a regressive "last, best, and final" offer on the Sunday afternoon before the strike, even as state officials insisted that management withdraw it and continue negotiating; and balked at a potential compromise last Thursday, then blamed "archaic" work rules — why?
Why did BART management refuse to settle the few remaining issues through binding arbitration, which would have kept the trains running?
Why did management continue to resist a compromise on several key safety rules, even after the tragic deaths of two BART employees on Saturday?
For now, we should welcome the end of a dispute that at times seemed like it might never end. But we should be careful not to draw the wrong lessons from this debacle. BART's general manager and its board of directors have many serious questions to answer.