BART strike on hold after governor creates board to investigate issues

Shortly before a strike deadline Sunday night, California governor Jerry Brown issued an order averting a strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers.

The order calls for a board of investigators to conduct an inquiry into the issues that have not been resolved during recent negotiations between BART management and members of BART’s two largest unions–SEIU 1021, which represents maintenance and repair workers, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents operations workers, including train operators, conductors, and station agents.

The board will have seven days to complete its investigation and issue its report.

Union workers in June went on a four-day strike but returned to work and to the bargaining table at the urging of elected officials.

The latest round of bargaining was set to expire on August 4. Three days ago, the unions announced that they were prepared to resume their strike if no agreement was reached by the deadline.

As the deadline approached, some progress had been made, but the two sides were still far apart.

The workers were seeking to make up for lost ground. Four years ago when the San Francisco Bay Area was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, BART management was able to impose a wage freeze on workers that lasted four years.

Now that the economy has recovered, BART workers want to recover some of the buying power they lost during the freeze.

But BART management is seeking further concessions. It wants to increase workers’ contributions to their pensions and health care premiums.

The unions argue that higher health care and pension deductions will eat up the modest raises that management is proposing.

“Depending on the medical plan (that members belong to), SEIU workers are looking at real wages losses of between minus 20.1 percent to -17.9 percent across nine years (2009-2017),” reads a fact sheet issued by Local 1021. “Going forward, we’re still looking at projected losses for the future contract cycle (2013-2017) of -8.9 percent to -5.9 percent.”

Safety is another issue important to workers.

According to Cal-OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, the injury rate among BART workers has increased by 43 percent during the last four years.

After the last contract went into effect and wages were frozen, BART management reduced operating staff by 8 percent, and the injury rate spiked.

ATU Local 1555 partially attributes the high injury rate to cutbacks in the workforce, which have caused workers still on the job to work longer and harder.

Local 1555 also notes that BART stations and trains have seen an increased number of assaults putting the safety of both workers and passengers at risk.

In 2009, there were 30 reported assaults on BART workers. In the first three months of 2013, 29 assaults on workers have already been reported.

The unions have made passenger and worker safety a priority during their bargaining, but the unions have said that BART management has not taken the safety issue seriously.

The unions also questioned whether BART management was serious about negotiating an agreement that could have avoided a strike.

Several BART negotiators including Thomas Hock, a consultant that BART hired for $390,000 to lead the negotiations, took vacations as the strike deadline approached.

Shortly before the strike deadline, BART management in a letter to Gov. Brown requested that he impose a 60-day cooling off period that would extend the strike deadline.

Brown instead chose to appoint the board of investigators and set a seven-day time limit on the board’s inquiry.

“In just the final two days before the expiration of the contract, our bargaining team waited for 22 hours for BART management negotiators to counter our proposals on core issues of pay and benefits'” said Local 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez in a prepared statement. “Our hope is that the Governor’s Board of Investigation will reveal how little time BART management has spent at the bargaining table in the past 30 days, compared with how much time they’ve spent posturing to the media. Our hope is that the Governor’s Board can show the public how BART has manipulated the process and continued to bargain in bad faith.”

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