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The BART Strike

Labor, Inequality and Transportation in the Bay Area

by DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM

The strike that shuttered BART for four and a half days last week puts the Bay Area’s largest transit system once again at the center of a public debate over the region’s future. The crux of the discussion is labor and inequality.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District spans all of the injustices of the San Francisco Bay Area megapolis. The sprawling regional revenue authority known as BART, created by the State of California in 1957 for the purpose of building and operating one of the world’s most massive urban train systems, remains a major force in reconfiguring the region’s geography and demographics, and creating and distributing immense wealth.

When it was built in the late 1960s, BART cut through and tore up entire communities, demolishing the brick-and mortar, as well as the social and spiritual existence of several neighborhoods, notably Black West Oakland. BART slid under and enriched other geographic zones, notably San Francisco’s financial district. Over the years BART has served as a link between the radically divided worlds of northern California’s urban post-industrial sacrifice zones and its prosperous suburban bedroom communities. But as much as it was a connector—train cars are often packed working class immigrants rubbing elbows with waspy city bankers—BART has also always been a vector of worsening poverty and isolation.

Recurrent, violent tragedies have haunted the train system over the years. BART spans a structurally brutal geography and economy; the carnage often spills over into the train stations, upon the platforms. Social ills play out in theatrical force before the public as the District’s police enforce the logic of law and order. This logic is captured on closed circuit security cameras and smart phone recordings, and in the Internet age shared instantly a million times. The victims most often are the displaced and bypassed humans for whom BART has no station, so to speak.

Like any social factory today, BART’s own workforce experiences the constant speeding-up of labor, and downward pressure on wages and control. In 2009 BART’s employees sacrificed and handed hundreds of millions in pay back over to the District’s board. It was a concession the unions saw as necessary to keep the trains running through the Great Recession. Four years of austerity, tight budgets, deferred maintenance, and a massive economic setback for BART’s three thousand-plus workers ensued. Fare hikes drove many of the poor away from BART’s trains, onto regional bus systems, under-funded, overloaded.

Last year BART’s financial managers began reporting rising revenues. Sales tax receipts sourced from the public in the three counties where BART operates, the second most important source of funds for the train system, were rising fast. Passenger fares, the biggest chunk of BART’s money, were growing quickly as each train was being packed with more bodies. The system, it appeared, had money again to invest in its work force, capital, and operations, and perhaps to avoid a fare hike.

BART workers have told me they expected smooth contract negotiations and a good and fair deal with the system’s management after four years of austerity. The labor agreements for BART’s workforce, represented mostly by the Amalgamated Transit Union and Service Employees International Union, expired on June 30. Workers recall in the months prior to the contract expiration BART’s General Manager telling them, “this time it will be different,” in reference to 2009 when the District demanded givebacks in the face of the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression. BART workers thought the difference this time would mean winning back lost wages, re-establishing themselves as solidly middle class members of the Bay Area’s labor force.

“We heard from the General Manager that it was going to be different this time, not like it was in 2009,” said Grace Marsha, a BART employee and officer of the Amalgamated Transit Union involved in the current contract talks. “The General Manager told the truth. It’s not at all like it was in 2009 when we had to give up so much. It’s a hell of a lot worse.”

BART management and workers clashed over the past several weeks over the terms of a new contract. BART demanded an effective pay cut, and the system’s management wants workers to pay for more of their own health and retirement expenses. The workers walked off their jobs on July 2 and immediately the Bay Area’s highways were clogged.

Workers across the Bay Area now see the struggle of BART employees as a crucial test with implications for labor across the region and beyond. The Bay Area’s working class has been beaten down over the past five years, and even while a real estate and technology boom creates whole new vistas of wealth and affluence for a privileged class of professionals, millions of workers in northern California are seeing no gains. Instead their bosses are advancing upon them with new austere demands for wage cuts, freezes, and increased employee contributions to health and pension plans. Management says they must build financial reserves, or deploy capital toward costly construction projects, or fund expensive new branches of management, purchase new technology, and hire outside consultants, anything except re-establishing a pact with members of the working class that their grueling labor will be rewarded.

“We need decent wages and working conditions for all workers,” said Michael Parker, a resident of Richmond, a scrappy working class city northeast of San Francisco where oil corporations refine much of the state’s fuel. “Unions set the bar for everybody, and if BART workers get good wages it becomes the standard that other workers are pulled up to. When you try to force the BART workers to take what is effective wage cut you are driving down wages and working conditions of everyone.”

“You are encouraging the race to the bottom,” Parker told the BART board of directors at their most recent meeting.

Last week there was a palpable sense of shock and outrage among BART employees that the District’s management was in fact going to pursue a strategy of taking more from workers, in spite of the recovering fiscal condition of the train system. City and county employees, hospital workers, and teachers across the region, all laborers in the highly organized public sector industries of the Bay Area, fear that the BART management’s aims reflect those of the six-figure chiefs who run the public agencies and governments they work under.

SEIU 1021, the local branch of the nation’s second largest union, now see the BART strike as a make-or-break struggle for the future of not just the train system’s 3,000 employees, but for unions and the working class in California’s post-Great Recession economy. It’s a paradoxically booming and stagnating society where home prices are zipping to new heights even while even while foreclosures proceed by the thousands. A whole cohort of new Silicon Valley millionaires is being minted through IPOs and buyouts, but wages for the bottom half stagnate

When it was first proposed in the immediate aftermath of World War II BART was the brainchild of the US military, envisioned as a rapid train system to fortify national security. San Francisco had become a major Navy and Army administration post while Oakland and Richmond had been transformed into industrial arsenals. East Bay factories were rolling out ships and machines and weapons and materials for war while San Francisco was orchestrating a nascent empire of global financial and technology-driven corporate production. A well-placed bomb under the Bay Bridge would seriously dent the US war machine, dependent as it was on the West Coast. That kind of setback military planners hoped to avoid in the coming Cold War as they set their sights on Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asian neocolonies ripe for investments from US multinationals. A train system to funnel white collar workers to offices in San Francisco, and to move blue collar workers up and down the East Bay shoreline was an ideal solution for central planners in the War Department.

It was, however, the Bay Area’s multi-national corporations and commercial real estate capitalists that mustered the organizational power to build BART. Companies like Bechtel, Chevron, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America provided the initial financial, lobbying, and brain power. Real estate corporations in San Francisco, controlled mostly by a few elite families, backed them up, realizing the massive windfall profits that would accrue to them once the train system reinforced downtown and Market Street as the regional nexus of business.

From the very beginning BART’s impact was to worsen existing inequalities. The system enriched the corporations that lobbied for it and literally built it, Bechtel being the most obvious winner. But BART also played into the suburbanization of the Bay Area. White middle class families moved out of the East Bay’s cities of Oakland, Richmond, San Leandro, and Fremont, and even staged an exodus from San Francisco, relocating to the end of BART’s lines in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Only in the 1990s and 2000s did the pattern of demographic inequality readily visible and measurable along the train line’s various stops begin to shift, with young and more affluent “yuppies” and later “hipsters” colonizing trendy neighborhoods like the Temescal in Oakland, and the Mission in San Francisco.

Even so, the unfair organization of the BART system’s geography and fare schedules remains in place today. Households living proximate to BART’s Orinda and Lafayette stops, out in the hills of the East Bay, are affluent and largely white. Households living under the tracks of the West Oakland Station, where construction in the late 1960s destroyed one of Oakland’s most vibrant Black business districts, are among the poorest families in California.

BART’s Oakland Coliseum Station is surrounded by tens of thousands of impoverished households for whom the trains provide little actual benefit. The neighborhoods adjacent to BART’s Coliseum stop have experienced some of the highest rates of foreclosure in the nation. Entire blocks have seen their housing stock half emptied, some homes turned into dump sites and fire hazards. A recent connector linking the station to the Oakland Airport was supposed to include stops along Hegenberger Road, a major thoroughfare in the city’s east inhabited largely by low-income Latinos and Blacks. The stations would have provided mobility for hotel and restaurant workers, and local residents, but the stations were scrapped in planning.

Just four stops away from the Coliseum Station is San Francisco’s Embarcadero where condos routinely sell for a million dollars. For decades BART passengers getting on in Walnut Creek, 25 miles from San Francisco, paid proportionately less for their ride than passengers boarding in downtown Oakland, where San Francisco is just spitting distance. With BART’s graduated fare structure the poor were made to pay more for each trip.

The BART system’s expansion, funded largely from sales tax revenues, put the burden of raising capital and paying back bonds on the shoulders of working families. Even today the BART District absorbs an enormous sum of regional sales tax dollars to pay off bonds, and to pledge toward stations and lines that are to be built far out into the eastern portion of Contra Costa County, and south toward San Jose. Although legally authorized to do so, and proven in other parts of the world as the best means of financing a transit system’s capital costs, BART never implemented any technique to capture the windfall profits in real estate values the system created around its stations. The train system’s original lobbyists, the same corporations at BART’s nexus of downtown San Francisco stops, saw to it that this was precluded from the start.

When Oscar Grant was summarily restrained and shot through his back on the platform of BART’s Fruitvale Station four years ago a rebellion engulfed the streets of Oakland. The subtext to the revolt was a complicated grievance against the Bay Area’s economic conditions. Grant, a butcher employed in an East Oakland market, was like countless young people, virtually abandoned in the rush toward the new tech and finance-centered economy. BART trains zip past their houses on elevated platforms, connecting the connected and privileged to their jobs, bypassing and out-pricing the poor. Too many working people simply don’t have a ticket to board the train. BART’s management speak the language of equity and justice in their daily deliberations, but it’s a focus on creating equity within a predetermined super-structure of inequity. And ironically while the BART board ponders ways to ensure that “minority communities” are not disproportionately impacted by new fare hikes, they’re also busy asking their workforce, largely women and people of color, for multi-million dollar pay cuts.

BART workers are bristling now at highly paid labor consultants hired by management to run the contract talks that broke down last week. They point to one Thomas Hock, a lawyer employed by Veolia, a French corporation that operates privatized transit systems around the world. BART workers say he’s one reason why negotiations in the Bay Area fell apart. The workers are calling him a “union buster.” BART management say he’s among the most respected labor strategist in their industry.

“I believe you maliciously hired this man and have no respect for the community and people you serve,” said one BART worker at the board’s meeting yesterday. You forced us to strike. We gave back last contract, we met for the collective good of everyone.”

“There’s been lots of talk about Tom Hock. The Bay Area’s learning about who you invited here,” said Yuri Holley, a BART worker and negotiator with ATU. Workers like Holley point to Hock’s record, and to Veolia’s record in recent labor disputes in Colorado, Arizona, and other states where strikes paralyzed transit systems, and where workers filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. BART workers are now calling on the board to fire their consultants.

BART’s contract paying Mr. Hock to lead them during contract talks with the unions was for $400,000.

“I make thirty dollars an hour,” said Holley. “Not the four-hundred thousands dollars of Tom Hock. We’ve had maybe twenty hours of face to face contact with your chief negotiator so far. That equates to about twenty-thousands dollars an hour he’s making.”

“That’s just mind boggling to me,” Holley said in clear frustration to the BART board.

BART workers are also pointing to the General Manager’s salary of $320,000 as an example of management’s misplaced values. All the talk about management’s over-sized pay follows a week of media reports portraying BART workers as cushioned and over-compensated. BART board member Zakhary Mallett publicly stated that workers should be paid less than their current middle class salaries. BART’s outside consultant and the Veolia corporation have a history of calling unionized workers over-paid, and stoking media campaigns to to build public resentment against anyone earning above a region’s median income.

BART workers fear being sent backward for their own sake. They fear also the wider ramifications an imposition of cuts would have in a time of rising prosperity for the wealthy few. The sisters, brothers, children, and neighbors of BART workers are employed in the Bay Area’s other modern day social factories, the hospitals, schools, cities, counties, and in the growing minimum wage service sector. Pressures to take from this bottom half of the workforce are intense, even though the economic pie has stopped shrinking. The desire of the wealthy few to maintain their riches in a political economy of inadequate and regressive taxation and welfare is bare now for all to see.

“We will be prepared for the war that you all have launched on your workforce,” Roxanne Sanchez, president of SEIU 1021 told BART’s management yesterday. “I say that with regret because we’re here to serve the public, but we will be prepared for the bloodiest longest strike since the 1970s if these tactics continue.”

Darwin Bond-Graham, a contributing editor to CounterPunch, is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. His essay on economic inequality in the “new” California economy appears in the July issue of CounterPunch magazine. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion