It’s a New Day for California Labor

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

When workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system went back to work Friday after a four-day strike, Gov. Jerry Brown earned a piece of both the credit and the blame.

First the good news. Brown, working with Marty Morgenstern, his labor secretary, managed to convince both workers and BART management that it would be best for everyone if the picket lines came down and the trains started running again.

The two sides now have 30 more days to iron out their considerable differences, thousands of BART workers can begin collecting paychecks again and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the system to get to work and around the Bay Area can get out of their cars, unclench their fists and stop grinding their teeth.

On the other hand, if not for the governor, there may never have been a walkout.

It’s not that the governor is anti-labor. Brown, after all, was the one who signed bills giving teachers, state workers and other public employees the right to bargain collectively, way back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. While Brown hasn’t always been number one on the union hit parade – like when he wasn’t allowed to speak at the Alameda County Labor Day Picnic in 1978 – his signature is on a passel of landmark labor bills, which still counts for a lot.

But as governor, when Brown speaks, people listen. And BART officials liked what they heard.

Last September, for example, the governor signed a bill that boosted the retirement age for new state employees, capped pension payouts and forced many public employees to pay more toward their pension costs.

That’s only part of the public pension reforms Brown promised during the 2010 governor’s race, when he said he would renegotiate existing state pension formulas and force workers to work longer and pay more for retiree health care.

Then there was the state budget, when Brown warned that while the state may seem to be flush with cash, it was only prudent to hang on to the money to ensure it’s there for future needs.

All that sounded just great to BART directors.

Since BART employees currently pay nothing toward their pensions and the transit system is looking at some $15 billion in capital needs over the next 15 or 20 years for things like new trains cars, a maintenance facility and an upgraded control system, it seemed like a good time to take a page from the governor’s book, especially since it seems to have worked pretty well for Brown.

So when contract negotiations with the transit system’s two largest unions got heated, management stood firm. Of course workers needed to pay more for their pensions – and health care for that matter – and equally of course, BART wasn’t going to spend any of that money put aside for the future on higher pay for its workers.

So the unions walked out, shutting down the system.

What they didn’t realize was that BART officials weren’t the only ones listening to Brown’s oft-spoken concern that the bad times of the Great Recession aren’t that far behind.

And while the governor has been careful not to say that government workers make too much and are treated too well, there are plenty of others in the state saying just that, over and over again.

So when BART workers hit the bricks, it wasn’t the usual strike experience in the union-friendly Bay Area. Instead of local politicians joining union workers on the picket line, civic and political leaders pushing behind the scenes to have BART settle and little kids handing out cookies to the strikers, there was plenty of anger and it was all aimed at the union.

Union leaders failed to recognize that it’s a new day in California. In the past few years, retirees have seen their nest eggs evaporate, people have been forced from their homes and workers who have been employed their entire adult lives suddenly found themselves with no job and no prospects.

Sure, BART workers have gone four years without a raise, but that average annual salary of $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000, plus healthy benefits, sounds pretty good to people trying to raise a family on part time work or unemployment payments.

To show just how strong the anti-union sentiment was, the day after the strike ended BART officials were forced to warn commuters not to berate, harass or threaten the workers who were back on the job.

Union officials are trying to make lemonade out of their lemon of a walkout, saying they went back to work out of respect for their customers and that it’s up to management to come up with a better, fairer offer before Aug. 4.

Of course, no union has ever ended a strike when they were convinced they were winning. And if people hated a four-day strike in July, how is another month going to make a new walkout more palatable?

So the BART unions go into this month of negotiations in worse shape than in the days before the strike.

But the concerns about the negotiations shouldn’t be limited to just the union members.

And the rest of the state’s workers shouldn’t be too quick to high-five each other and say that overpaid government employees are getting what they deserve.

If BART managers and Bay Area commuters were listening to Brown talk about the need for pension reforms and his poor-mouthing of the state’s financial situation, so was every other employer in California. Listening and preparing very similar arguments.

“When you tear down BART workers, saying they’re making too much and have too many benefits, you’re tearing down all workers,” said Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, which represents more than 1,400 BART maintenance people, mechanics and professional workers. “People need to realize that what BART workers get taken away is coming out of your pockets next.”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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