STRIKEWATCH: BART SHUT DOWN AS WORKERS STRIKE

STRIKEWATCH: BART SHUT DOWN AS WORKERS STRIKE

Michele Ellson

Updated at 11:52 a.m. Friday, October 18

BART workers went on strike Friday, shutting down the rail line after a week of late-night sessions overseen by a federal mediator failed to produce new contracts.

BART's unions said they were calling the strike over proposed changes to work rules that they said are needed to protect workers and the rail line's top manager said are needed to run BART more effectively and efficiently. Both they and BART's managers blamed each other for what both sides know will be an unpopular move.

In a statement issued midday Thursday, Amalgamated Transit Union President Antonette Bryant said that BART managers and the system's unions had reached agreement on wages, pensions and benefits but that on Tuesday, management demanded the elimination of what they characterized as rules that union leaders said would put BART managers in a position to exploit workers.

“Our train operators and station agents and other members would be at risk for on-going and systematic abuse by management on a day-to-day basis with no recourse. This was unacceptable,” Bryant was quoted as saying in a press release on the union's website.

Service Employees International Union's Roxanne Sanchez in a statement said that BART's unions agreed to take the "unprecedented step" of going to binding arbitration to settle outstanding issues over work rules and conditions, which she said also included employee scheduling and pay schedules for utility and service system workers, but that management is refusing to go.

But management is saying the changes are needed to make the system run more effectively and efficiently - and also, to pay for the wage and benefit package they're offering.

BART General Manager Grace Crunican said management was seeking the power to unilaterally make changes that would allow them to implement technology and other efficiencies, without seeking the unions' approval first. She said the union was only seeking to bring part of the contract into arbitration, instead of the whole thing, and that management expects to win some additional rights for the 12 percent in raises being offered over the next four years.

"We are available to bargain and to continue to discuss items," Crunican told the press Thursday afternoon.

BART spokesman Rick Rice said changes are needed to bring about efficiencies that will help pay for the wage and benefit proposal the rail line's management is offering workers. And he said the rules, known as beneficial past practice, have posed a too-high barrier to making those changes.

Rice said that BART went to arbitration with workers after they refused to wear yellow vests while at train stations and that management lost, because BART workers had never done so in the past. He said the rules also prevented BART's managers from requiring workers to use handheld devices to transmit documents and that they are still sent via fax.

While union leaders said both sides had reached agreement on wages and benefits, Rice said that the unions and management are still working out some economic issues and that the changes would be needed to fund management's wage and benefit proposal.

"We have a lot of work to do. We're still far apart here," he said.

Union leaders said the rules are needed to protect workers in situations that contracts don't always anticipate. SEIU's Mark Mosher offered one case in which a worker who accused a department head of sexual harassment was given tougher jobs than are typical upon returning to work after a knee injury. The union would have no recourse to protect that worker without the rule in place, he said.

"To say this is about people wanting paper paychecks is really disingenuous," Mosher said.

He said the unions were prepared to ink contract deals today but were unwilling to surrender what they see as fundamental worker rights for an increase in pay. Crunican said the proposal to eliminate the past practice rule has been on the table for six months, though Mosher said that it had not been linked to BART's pay proposal until this week. In a statement, Crunican said she had presented union negotiators with an updated final offer Thursday.

"It reflects the limited progress we’ve made over the past four days of work and it addresses the essential work rule efficiencies BART desperately needs to modernize our operations," Crunican was quoted as saying.

In another statement issued Friday, she said mediators, and not BART, came up with the idea of coupling a wage and benefit package with work rules.

"The mediators informally offered a model which included an economic package coupled with work rule reforms and BART agreed. The unions grabbed the salary offer, but balked at the work rule changes," it said.

The unions said they have taken pay cuts as BART raised fares, raking in $300 million. But BART's managers have said they need to raise money to replace hundreds of aging train cars, implement a new train control system and fix up the rail line's maintenance yard.

“We are not going to agree to something we can’t afford. We have to protect the aging system for our workers and the public," Crunican's statement said.

Unions and management have been attempting to work toward a deal with the aid of mediators, whose role is to bring the sides together in a mutually acceptable agreement that either side can opt not to take after the sessions conclude. Arbitrators, Mosher said, have the power to craft a deal and impose it on both sides.

The strike announcement follows five days of late-night bargaining with the aid of federal mediators capped by a 28-hour session - and day-to-day uncertainty about whether trains would be available for the 400,000 commuters who ride them every day. BART announced it will provide some limited charter bus service, but that it can only handle 6,000 riders a day.

Other transit agencies and the city have been prepared to manage another BART shutdown for a week. The San Francisco Bay Ferry is offering extra service during the strike, and the city is offering to relax parking rules around the Island's two ferry terminals and provide shuttle service to both if BART is shut down. AC Transit - whose workers were threatening to strike Thursday, until Governor Jerry Brown stepped in to investigate whether a 60-day cooling off period is justified - has been touting extra space on its existing buses (which won't be stopping at BART stations if BART workers strike). Comprehensive traffic and transit information is available on 511.org.

We'll keep you updated on developments and your Friday commute as events unfold.

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