Labor leaders try to avoid BART strike

August 14, 2009 7:43:23 PM PDT
BART officials and representatives from the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 1555, which represents station agents and train drivers, are working together to talk again on Saturday, thanks to help from Bay Area and state labor leaders.

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Bay Area labor leaders and the chief officer of the state labor federation met with ATU leadership Friday afternoon.

"It doesn't look good at the moment in terms of being able to avoid a strike, but we're going to do the best we can to help out," Art Pulaski, Chief Officer of the California Labor Federation, said.

ATU President Jesse Hunt was in meetings all day. Friday morning he said ATU still wants to talk.

"We're prepared to be at the table to get this worked out," Hunt said.

But Friday, BART said it is not interested in talking unless ATU leadership promises to do a better job of selling a deal to its membership. Chief spokesperson Linton Johnson showed reporters the difference between SEIU's pitch to members to vote "yes," which they did, and ATU's description of an "ugly" package, that was rejected.

"We can come back to the table this weekend and negotiate another agreement, but if they're going to trash it, what's the point," Johnson said.

BART's largest and smallest unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) both approved their contracts, but ATU rejected theirs, saying they do not want to be locked in to a four-year wage freeze and benefits concessions.

"It's about, I would like to be able to take my 7- and 12-year-old to the doctor, bottom line; I would like to be able to know that when I turn 65, I do not have to rely upon my children to live, I do not have to rely upon the kindness of strangers because you would like to take away my retirement," station agent Kaitana Hawkins said.

Hawkins voted against the contract offer; she says she understands how a strike will inconvenience riders.

"No we don't want to inconvenience an entire Bay Area, but in the same token, I think you have to take care of yourself before can take care of anyone else," Hawkins said.

Pulaski would not give details on how the labor leaders might be able to help.

"I'm here to see how we can support the negotiations, to see if there's any way we can solve this, and we won't know until we have some more discussions about that," Pulaski said.

BART contends train operators are already overpaid, compared to drivers in other large cities with a high cost of living.

Their comparison has BART operators making 58 percent more than drivers in Los Angeles and about 60 percent more than New York subway drivers. With overtime, BART says its operators earn more in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year.

The last BART strike was in 1997 -- it lasted six days.

During that strike, Caltrain ridership soared 80 percent, but Peninsula commuters have since become more reliant on BART. Samtrans ridership went up 21 percent in 1997. Back then, 250,000 passengers rode BART. Today, more than 350,000 passengers use the system.

The longest BART strike was in 1979. It lasted 3 months. BART ran a partial schedule with middle managers operating trains; those managers are now part of a BART union.

LINK: Information on transit alternatives in the event of a BART strike

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