I often reflect on the 2013-14 BART negotiations for the illustration it provides of the huge divide between actual public sector worker needs and the public’s perception of worker needs.
I am grateful to the BART public employee unions for selecting me to serve as one of the principal budget and labor policy analyst to represent the BART employees in the long series of labor negotiations that ended in federal mediation and ultimately a final negotiated settlement in 2014.
I have never worked for a more dedicated and knowledgeable team of public workers. We endured thousands of hours of contentious negotiations and ultimately succeeded in crafting a compromise that addressed both worker needs and was well within the district’s ability to pay.
The BART standoff is a very important case study which I believe is illustrative of the current gap that exists between actual public worker needs and the public’s perception of worker needs. The truth of the matter is that none of the members I represented were there to get rich off the transit system and taxpayers. Most of these workers had dedicated the majority of their working careers to make sure the BART system operates safely and effectively.
BART workers simply wanted modest wage increases to make up for all the concessions that they had made when times were tough. Perhaps more importantly, they wanted the BART district to respond to a series of safety concerns which had gone unmitigated for a long time despite repeated grievances and written worker complaints.
Moreover, the nature of some of these safety concerns such as potentially illegal working conditions and unsound management practices were really in the best interests of management to respond to given the potential liability concerns.
On the contrary, the public’s common perception was that the BART workers were holding out for a big “payday” on the backs of BART riders. This perception could not have been further from the truth.
My own objective analysis of the BART agency’s budget showed that the agency had more than enough money to pay for the workers' modest cost of living increases and relatively insignificant cost increases from improved worker safety rules. Moreover, the district’s marginal increases in labor costs represented a very small fraction of the agency’s current and projected operating labor cost increases and were a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the district had erratically tucked away in various hidden budget accounts.
The real issue with BART’s finances was, and continues to be, the district’s need to find long-term revenue sources to pay for the district’s long-term capital maintenance needs and capacity improvements to the system. The district unfairly wanted BART workers to take a huge hit to cover a small fraction of these capital needs without acknowledging the need for the district to take a stronger leadership role to address the real funding issues at hand—the large unfunded projected capital needs of the system.
The contentious nature of BART’s finances even sparked an independent audit by the California State Auditor. The California State Auditor validated BART worker contentions and my findings by simply stating that “BART will not be able to rely on its operating budget for its capital needs,” according to the district’s press release on the audit.
BART workers actually ended up losing a significant amount of money in foregone pay and benefits from the week-long transit strike but felt the strike and shutdown was unavoidable given the unwillingness of district labor negotiators to endorse a reasonable compromise. In other words, BART workers were tired of taking it on the chin since the last round of negotiations and the strike represented their one opportunity to try to remedy the situation for the years to come.
The real surprise is why the district held out for so long given their ability to pay in the overall context of their operating budget, and the pressing objective need to address egregious safety violations.
It’s unfortunate that it took the death of two innocent BART workers hit by a train with BART managers at the controls for much of the public and BART management to realize that the BART workers had been right all along regarding the district’s unsound management practices with regard to worker safety.
Regarding the issue of worker compensation, much of the public still does not likely realize that the BART workers were also right on the issue of worker compensation, but I believe most BART workers feel they got a least a somewhat fair shake in this regard.
Needless to say, there have been some significant management shakeups at BART since the 2013-14 round of negotiations. Let’s hope that everyone, including the public has learned something from the 2013-14 round of negotiations.
David Kersten is an independent budget and labor policy analyst who was at the bargaining table for the entire round of the 2013-14 BART contract negotiations as well as dozens of other major sets of negotiations over the past decade.