Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tips for BART Union Workers Who Might Strike Again

Since I was raised in a working-class family and am cognizant of all the financial gains the top 1% in this country have made over the past 30 years at the expense of our poor and middle classes, I am naturally prejudiced toward favoring workers in a labor dispute. In a capitalistic system like ours, where there tends to be a lack of regulations to prevent the greedy rich from getting richer, labor unions are essential toward countering the power that management tends to have—and often abuses. Like my ex-girlfriend who works at the San Francisco Business Times wrote in a recent article, I have much respect for labor unions and their contributions to workers like myself. With another looming BART strike around the calendar corner, I figured now would be a good time to write up this post.

Before I provide my tips to BART union workers who might strike come Monday, let me share with you an overview of my experience as a BART rider. Ever since I graduated high school in 1997 (that was another century!), I have ridden BART—with the exception of a few years—on a near weekly basis; 2002-2004 was the only extended period of time in which I did not use BART on a daily or weekly basis to get to school, work, or to visit my family. Since September 2008 I have utilized BART to attend graduate school in Moraga, work in West Oakland and downtown San Francisco and to visit my parents. I ride BART so often that my life feels peculiar when a period of time—say, a week— passes without riding BART. The experience of being a rider has become as automatic as tying my shoes.

I mention all this to convey the breadth of my experience as a BART rider. There are only four BART stations I am not familiar with: El Cerrito Plaza, South San Francisco, North Concord and Pittsburg/Bay Point. So when I tell you that I know what I’m talking about when I speak about my experience as a BART rider, I have a substantial amount of experience to substantiate my opinions on this labor dispute.

Back in early July when BART’s two unions went on strike, I read most of the local newspaper articles covering the strike; I was mildly addicted to it, to be honest. I also caught my share of television news coverage of the strike with a particular interest in hearing from the striking workers. Since then, I have been keeping abreast of the continuing labor dispute since my girlfriend commutes into San Francisco. From these observations, I’ve come up with a couple of tips for BART union workers who might go on strike again if they have any hope of garnering sympathy from the general public:

1) Consider training your conductors and station agents on this term employers call “customer service.”

When BART is running, your train conductors and agents at the 44 stations are the public face of the SEIU Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Unions. Over the years I have run into my share of station agents who seem to almost pride themselves on being malcontent dickbags on the few occasions I have needed their assistance with a ticket/Clipper issue or when a machine was out of bus transfers. I have also ridden my share of trains where conductors take an unnecessarily harsh and booming tone with riders on the platform or in the train. This is unfortunate because many conductors and a few station agents (I’m thinking of the ones at the MacArthur, 19th Street/Oakland, and Fremont stations) have displayed patience and a helpful attitude to BART patrons who can be difficult to deal with. (I’m thinking of the drunkards who board the trains from the Mission and downtown San Francisco stations on weekend nights.) But they seem like the exceptions from my experience and from what I hear from most of my friends who ride BART on a daily to semi-regular basis.

The 2013 BART strike—like never before—brought to the public’s attention the paltry qualifications train conductors and BART station agents need in order to be hired. Every BART rider—400,000 of us on a workweek basis—probably know at least 1-2 people who work some of sort of customer service job in which it is imperative for them to interface in a positive manner with the general public if they wish to keep their jobs which pay far, far less than BART union workers. With an average BART worker salary of $79,800 with an average benefits package worth $50,800 in 2013 according to, why don’t you try telling your train conductors and station agents to be more helpful, tactful, and maybe even pleasant with the general public? You just might garner a wee bit more sympathy from the public the next time you decide to go on a strike that will impair commutes for many commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

2) If you go on strike, make sure you do a better job of getting union workers who are capable of being on point about the union’s contract disputes to participate in television news interviews.

Back in July, my girlfriend and I watched the local evening news on a daily basis when the BART unions decided to go on strike. (It’s worth mentioning that we rarely ever watch the news.) I saw one or two quick interviews with striking union workers in which they were asked what the key issues were in negotiations with BART management. After the second or third day of the strike, I noticed that employees were stressing “safety issues” for these television interviews. During an interview with Channel 2’s Julie Haener—who I would not consider a muckraking reporter—a BART union worker was given two opportunities to further explain what the key issues were for the unions. And twice this employee failed to elucidate exactly what these safety issues. I had to search online to see what these safety issues were.

I do feel the news media slanted their headlines and coverage in favor of BART management; this Alternet article makes some key points to illustrate this. However, if these safety concerns are a key issue separating both bargaining sides, you have to have union workers who are a smidge more eloquent and on point in explaining an issue like this that could help to garner more public sympathy.

3) If you’re going to claim employee safety as a key issue that BART management is unwilling to work on, then provide statistics and anecdotes to illustrate your need for additional safety.

Clearly, this suggestion is in conjunction with my previous one. Again, it is a call for specifics, not vague generalities. Judging from what I read in the Alternet article I mentioned before, I am very willing to sympathize with BART unions on this issue, so you need to do a better job of illustrating it.

4) Don’t make stupid picketing signs.

Below are pictures of a few signs that your union workers made for the early July strike:

“Safety First”? And “Workers and Riders Deserve Better”? Fucking really? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! You expect BART riders and Bay Area commuters affected by the transit strike to believe these sentiments? It’s insulting to our intelligence and knowledge about the labor negotiations to expect the public into being fooled into believing that these are truly the key issues behind your strike.

If the differences in negotiations with BART management is truly about “Safety First,” well whose safety are you talking about? For BART union employees only, or also for the public? That one is not nearly as bad as the “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” picket sign. Just how exactly is your transit strike supposed to be about riders deserving better? In the newspapers and in television interviews with BART union employees all I kept hearing and reading was how union workers wanted a 23% salary raise over the next four years; there was no mention of how this was going to improve the riding experience for BART’s 400,000 weekly riders.

Until these points are honestly addressed by BART unions, please don’t insult our intelligence by having ridiculous, misleading picket signs like these. Going on strike for a generous, generous raise over the next four years on top of
the generous salaries your union workers enjoy and then holding up picket signs that read “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” is about as hilarious as Orwell’s jingoes in 1984 such as “War is Peace” or “Freedom is Slavery.” It is on that same level. Do not deceive yourself about that. Please get your heads out of your asses when you proclaim such sentiments and expect the general public to sympathize with your cause.

Hope these suggestions were helpful. Questions and comments, as always, are welcome.

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