Board brings politics to bargaining table

San Francisco Chronicle

By Antonette Bryant

June 19, 2013

Imagine if every four years you had to negotiate your salary, health and retirement benefits, hours and working conditions with politicians who, as we know from gridlock in Washington, instinctively play games rather than compromise. It’s not easy.

In 2009, BART’s elected leadership claimed the transit system faced a $310 billion deficit and used it to extract $100 million in concessions from its front-line workforce, impose a wage and hiring freeze, cut service and raise fares for riders. A year later, which happened to be an election year for BART directors, they discovered a surplus and voted a fare rollback to riders.

Today, revenues at BART are up. Ridership is at record levels. Trains are running at better than 95 percent on-time. BART itself is forecasting an annual operating surplus of $125 million per year for the next 10 years. But because this is a contract negotiations year with its union workers, BART’s politicians once again have projected an overall budget deficit of $10 billion over 25 years that workers and riders are supposed to resolve.

In order to arrive at a fair contract by June 30, both sides need to work with real budget figures. Instead, BART has presented a political document, not a fiscal one. BART’s projected budget deficit directly corresponds to the money its elected directors are charged with raising from federal, state and local funding sources to upgrade and expand the BART system. We’ve done our job. They need to do theirs.

With the wage freeze, take-home pay for BART’s front-line workers has fallen 11 percent behind Bay Area inflation since 2009. Even with BART’s revenues the healthiest in years, BART is proposing to cut our pay by 10 percent rather than reward us for doing more work with fewer people over the past four years.

That simply isn’t fair. Neither is BART’s deliberate misrepresentation of our salaries and benefits. BART keeps adding in the compensation of top-line management – the more than $400,000 that General Manager Grace Crunican makes, for example – and publicizing the result as the average pay scale for its employees.

The average pay for a BART station agent or train operator with 20 years experience is $61,000. Our pensions average a modest $21,000 a year – and we’re not eligible for Social Security. BART workers already pay $92 a month toward their health care premium, and have agreed to contribute an additional 3 percent each year for the next 20 years. Some workers, who choose other health care plans, pay up to $800 a month.

Finally, there’s the issue of safety. Almost 1,100 BART workers and patrons have been physically attacked in the past three years. We have asked BART directors repeatedly to improve safety standards, but they refuse to talk about it. It’s time for the politicians who run BART to put away the political agenda and address the urgent needs of this great transit system.

Antonette Bryant is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 in Oakland, which represents more than 900 train operators, station agents and other front-line workers on BART.