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Blood on the Tracks

Was Management to Blame for Two BART Deaths?

by DAVID MACARAy

Two unions—SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1021 and ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) Local 1555—went on strike against BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on Friday, October 18, after a week of marathon negotiations broke down without a settlement.

There was a point in negotiations, before the SEIU and ATU were reluctantly forced to pull the plug, when it looked like a compromise deal was possible, but BART management, like so many predatory companies in the U.S., insisted on doing its “copy-cat” number, demanding profound and unacceptable give-backs from the union.

The conventional wisdom governing these decisions is that because America’s unions don’t have anywhere near the public support they used to have, now is the perfect time to strip those contracts of provisions it took years to accrue. And that’s exactly what BART was trying to do.

Of course, the public is going to be furious, given how disruptive and inconvenient the shutdown will be. Commuters who depend on BART for their daily transportation are going to be left to their own devices. Unfortunately, because BART carries about 400,000 round-trip passengers each weekday, it’s going to be a real mess.

But the SEIU and ATU membership is strong and unified. Why? Because they and they alone (not the public, not the media, not the politicians) know exactly what BART is trying to pull. BART management is going after all they can get because they believe the time is right, and the “gettin’ is good.”

But on Saturday, October 19, tragedy struck. Two workers engaged in checking out a section of track believed to be defective were hit by a train and killed. According to an Associated Press report, the two victims were a BART employee and an outside contractor. The driver of the train was reported to be a BART manager, filling in for a striking worker.

Out of respect for the victims and their families, the ATU announced that it would be pulling its 900 picketers on Sunday. As brutal and acrimonious as strikes can be, nobody—neither union or management—ever wants to see anyone seriously hurt or killed. The only thing these two workers were trying to do was get a job done. Their death was tragic.

Yet there are a couple of questions that need to be asked: (1) How tactful are we required to be when one of the victims was a scab—a worker who had purposely crossed a union picket line? And (2) how much slack are we required to give management employees who try to perform jobs they are not qualified to perform?

According to the AP, an official of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) acknowledged that one of the victims of the train accident was an AFSCME member who had voluntarily chosen to cross an authorized union picket line.

Although AFSCME wasn’t part of the strike, its leadership had urged its members to honor SEIU-ATU pickets. Let’s be clear. No one is suggesting that scabs deserve to die. That sentiment may have had some traction in the turbulent 1930s, but it certainly doesn’t today, nor should it. There are lots of ways of dealing with scabs. Wanting them to die ain’t one of them.

But a manager doing a union worker’s job and expecting to do it as well as the union worker, is a whole other deal. Whenever there’s a strike, it’s common for management to claim the shutdown had little effect on production, boasting that management personnel was able to keep the operation running smoothly. They always resort to that little “morale booster,” and it’s always a lie.

What happened on that BART track goes well beyond boosting morale. If that AP report is accurate, and a manager ran over a couple of guys because he was trying to do a job he wasn’t qualified for, it’s more than just a tragedy. It’s criminal.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net.