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Journalistic Failure

The BART Strike and Mainstream Media

by DAVID MACARAY

On July 1, the unionized employees of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) went out on what became a four and a half day strike. Despite the melodramatic tone of the media—practically depicting these transit workers as a group of ungrateful renegades—it was the first shutdown of BART since 1997.

Although no agreement was reached, the union (Service Employees International Union, Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1555) willingly returned to work, willingly extended the existing contract (which had expired) for 30 days, and promised to continue to bargaining in good faith.

In the absence of a “live” contract, the union was not legally required to give advance notification of a strike. But in order to ensure an orderly shutdown, they thoughtfully did so anyway. If the transit union were half as militant as suggested, they would have pulled the plug without notice, and then rejoiced in the chaos that ensued. But they didn’t do that.

When I was a union negotiator, pulling the plug without notice was exactly what we did. We’d bargained for more than four months and gotten nowhere. While our strike was not totally unexpected (after all, management was aware the contract had expired), suddenly hearing machinery being shut down and seeing workers march off the job definitely got their attention. But the transit union didn’t do that. They played it courteously.

As for the sticking points in BART negotiations, the issues are pretty much standard boilerplate agenda items (e.g., pay raises, job security, protection of medical benefits, etc.), along with some miscellaneous safety concerns (e.g., requesting thicker glass for ticket offices in high crime areas). Nothing unreasonable, nothing unexpected, nothing from out of left field.

One thing is clear during a strike: You can’t believe anything you read in the mainstream media. Not only are reporters too gullible or lazy to check out management propaganda, they seem to take perverse pride in automatically siding with the company against the union, even when they themselves belong to a labor union.

On the first day of our 57-day strike, some years ago, local TV showed up to interview our negotiators. It was a three-person crew: a photogenic woman reporter, a camera guy, and a sound guy. While the woman was interviewing our spokesman, the two guys casually asked why we struck. We told them what the issues were. They wished us luck, bumped fists, and exchanged solidarity handshakes with us. Power to the people!

But that evening, in addition to showing the interview with our spokesman, they ran footage of an interview with “Betty,” an hourly worker we weren’t aware had been interviewed. They must have caught her at the back picket line. I knew Betty. She was a smart, efficient worker. But because she had a mic and a camera jammed in her face, and an aggressive, sharp-eyed reporter peppering her with questions, she was extremely nervous. Who wouldn’t be?

Unfortunately, the reporter got Betty to say some things that made her sound not only woefully ignorant, but made her sound as if she were being held captive. When Betty was asked what the main issues were, she said she didn’t know. This after weekly updates posted by the bargaining board!! Betty said she didn’t know why we were on strike, but that she’d been told to stand picket.

My heart sank when I saw that interview. This bright, presentable woman came off as some sort of proletarian automaton. “Yes, comrade. I will do as commanded.” When our chief negotiator, an officer with the International old enough to be our dad, heard about the interview, he went absolutely ape-shit. He actually tried to blame us for it, arguing that we were responsible for educating the membership. It was a very bad scene.

The local newspapers were worse. They fell for the oldest trick in the book, allowing the company to add up every dollar in compensation (including wages, health insurance, pension, overtime pay, vacation pay, holiday pay, meetings, safety shoes, cafeteria chits, you name it), and then present it in the form of an hourly wage, making it sound like we were making $75 per hour. The media ate it up.

The same thing is happening with the BART strike. Management is purposely inflating the union’s package and poor-mouthing its own predicament, hoping to crush the union by appealing to the public’s jealousy and resentment.

The LA Times (July 6) asked a regular BART rider what she thought of the strike. Having heard the union was resisting increases in healthcare premiums, and speaking of her own job, she said, “We don’t even have healthcare benefits.” Ah, yes, another case of the media taking the whip to us, urging us on in our race to the bottom.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep.  Dmacaray@earthlink.net