When a pair of BART strikes brought the Bay Area to a standstill last year, Robert Raburn, one of the transit agency's elected board members, found himself in an unfamiliar place. After years of leading the East Bay Bike Coalition to prominence, he had parlayed his progressive credentials into a seat on the BART board in 2010. But during the tumultuous 2013 labor dispute between BART management and its striking unions, Raburn sided with management and was suddenly no longer viewed as being quite so progressive. And that decision could cost him his seat this fall on the BART Board of Directors, representing Alameda and portions of Oakland and San Leandro. Organized labor is now strongly backing his challenger, Alameda city Councilmember Lena Tam.
In some politically moderate regions of the Bay Area, political races have focused in part this year on whether BART unions should be banned from going on strike, but that question has barely registered a mention in this liberal district. Raburn, Tam, and a third candidate, Lionel Larry Young, Jr. who ran for Oakland mayor in 2010, all believe that banning transit workers from striking is a bad idea. And they agree that the best way to limit the likelihood of a strike in the future is by fostering better communication between labor and management before contract negotiations begin. Yet despite their agreement on these issues, there is no doubt that Raburn's policy positions during the BART strike last year are the main issue of contention in this race.
"This last year was bitter in that I feel like I was unfairly labeled" as being anti-union, said Raburn in an interview. He said the six-month ordeal last year was the "most intense moment" of his life. Raburn said he felt intimidated by the anger that emanated from both sides of the dispute. "It's not like you're elected just to serve the passengers and your constituents, you have these two bodies— management and labor — that want something from you." Raburn said his goal during negotiations was simply to gain a long-term, sustainable plan for BART. Union officials, though, contend that Raburn betrayed them. "I became persona non grata real fast with the union because I didn't say, 'Oh, I'll watch your back.' I said, 'No, I'm going to listen to all sides.'"
Around the time that the labor dispute was coming to an end, East Bay labor leaders began looking for a candidate to challenge Raburn. Tam said that union leaders and local state legislators involved in the final stages of negotiations — state Senator Ellen Corbett and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, among others — began recruiting her in August 2013 with hope she that she would mount a campaign in 2014 when she termed out of office in Alameda. "The people involved on the union side who were trying to prevent a strike felt [that] with my credentials that I would be someone who they could work with on the BART board," she said.
Once Tam entered the race, she quickly gained the backing of the Alameda County Democratic Party and the powerful Alameda Labor Council — both notable endorsements for groups that rarely oppose progressive incumbents. Raburn admitted in an interview that he would have welcomed either group's endorsement this fall (the Sierra Club is endorsing Raburn's campaign), but noted that he was elected four years ago without their support. "It's not like I'm thumbing my nose at central labor committees or central Democratic committees, but just the word, 'central,' sort of rubs me the wrong way. I like grassroots." He later questioned Tam's reasons for seeking the seat. "She has some weak spots — mainly motivation," Raburn alleged. "She's termed out — pure and simple. She's looking for a place to park."
In an interview, Tam highlighted Raburn's role in the BART strike. "You need to listen to more than one side," said Tam, who contends that Raburn was taking marching orders from BART General Manager Grace Crunican and had ignored labor's concerns. "The union's felt there was no point — he didn't want to listen to them.
"Does he have a problem with working families?" Tam continued. "I think it comes mainly from his actions and not his words."
Tam also points to an independent report on the handling of the BART strike, which blasted the BART Board of Directors for exhibiting a lack of leadership during negotiations and exacerbating the dispute. Tam also pointed out that Raburn chose not to mention on his ballot statement that he is a BART board director.
Another point of controversy in the campaign involves Raburn's role in the hiring of BART management's controversial lead negotiator, Thomas Hock, who is notorious among labor groups for his animosity toward unions. Raburn now admits that his vote to hire Hock was a mistake. "There were many things that were his fault," said Raburn, noting that Hock took untimely vacations during the negotiations. "He was hired at a very costly amount and he should have been there."
Raburn said he voted to approve Hock's contract because he believed that the negotiator's record for avoiding work stoppages was sterling. "I didn't realize that just the mention of his name would be so adversarial," Raburn said. Tam argues that Raburn relied solely on Crunican's recommendation of Hock when he should have done his own homework.
Another point of disagreement in the campaign involves Raburn's vote last year to increase BART fares. Raburn contends that the rate hike will help the agency pay for new train cars. Train overcrowding has become an increasing problem as BART's aging fleet of cars have suffered maintenance problems that force them out of service. "People that are transit-dependent deserve better and that's the goal," he said.
But Tam argues that BART should not have raised fares because it has a $100 million operating surplus. Raburn disputes that assertion, however. After a candidate forum last week, Raburn asserted that BART's actual surplus is about $12 million and that Tam has mischaracterized the agency's reserves and its disaster fund.
Although Raburn's main proposal in the campaign is to greatly increase BART's capacity, he also wants to focus on improving service in areas of the system used the most by residents. He has long advocated for encouraging cities to develop housing around transportation centers. Raburn does not support BART's plan for an extension to Livermore for the same reason he criticizes the previous expansion to North Concord — the least-used station in the system. He also calls the nearly completed Oakland Airport connector a "major boondoggle," and adds that the project was too far along when he was elected in 2010 to stop it. He faults the $500 million project for serving only a small portion of the transit population. "If you're spending money on passengers, it should go to benefit all the passengers equitably," said Raburn.
Tam also disapproves of the airport connector for many of the same reasons, but criticizes Raburn's decision to support the project after he was elected.
Tam also argues that her legislative experience on the Alameda City Council and ability to work with leaders in Oakland and labor unions are key reasons for why voters should choose her over Raburn.
Raburn said he is proud of the work he has done during his first term in office, but realizes that he has a formidable opponent this fall. "I don't worry," said Raburn. "I show concern."