Even Democratic pols avoid solidarity with BART workers Says privatization advocate funded by rightwing-Happy With Demo Attack On Public Transit Workers

Even Democratic pols avoid solidarity with BART workers Says privatization advocate funded by rightwing-Happy With Demo Attack On Public Transit Workers
Labor supported "Mark DeSaulnier" Wants To Ban BART Workers From Striking
Even Democratic pols avoid solidarity with BART workers

By Steven Greenhut3:50 p.m.Aug. 7, 2013
Gov. Jerry Brown has temporarily halted a strike at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, as he awaits a report about the dispute and decides whether to ask a judge for a 60-day “cooling off” period. But the most fascinating development isn’t the high-level political intervention, but the lack of sympathy liberal-oriented Bay Area residents and even Democratic politicians are showing toward the BART workers.

“I couldn’t even get a burrito without confronting someone who asked that we take our stand on behalf of the public,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, according to published reports. He said that BART riders need a “voice at this table.” One newspaper column was aptly headlined, “In BART strike, it’s transit workers vs. just plain workers.”

Mark DeSaulnier, an East Bay Democrat who leads the state Senate transportation committee, has called for legislation that bans strikes by transit workers. Beware strike bans given that they typically come with binding-arbitration mandates that help unions escalate their compensation levels, but it says something when even one of Sacramento’s most labor-friendly legislators is frustrated about union strike threats.

These reactions are a sign that the public is grasping a core point: When officials give in to excessive compensation demands, it is the public that pays the price. BART employees are an unsympathetic bunch given that their average pay is above $80,000 a year, they make no contributions to their generous pension plans and pay only 92 bucks a month for some of the best medical benefits on the planet. They are at the top of the compensation heap for California transit workers.

BART union workers took to the picket lines last month and are willing to do so again if they aren’t granted 20-percent raises over three years. They also are digging in their heels over a BART management plan to require workers to pay more for their benefits. “BART spent $17 million last year to pick up the employee share of pensions,” according to a statement released by the agency. “If employees begin to pay even part of their share we can use the savings to begin to make the critical investments needed.”

If BART gives in to the union, riders “will see more squeezing out of services and a reduced quality of services along with higher rider fares,” said Autumn Carter, the executive director of California Common Sense, a Los Altos-based research group founded by Stanford students. Researchers for the organization recently analyzed BART’s budget and found that the system’s overall spending on retirement costs nearly quadrupled over 11 years.

BART riders could expect an 18-percent fare increase if the union triumphs, she told me. That’s enough to put a damper on union solidarity, especially when one realizes that these SEIU (Service Employees International Union) workers aren’t slaving away in sweatshops.

“The amount BART workers make is so far above anybody else that it’s scandalous, frankly,” said Wendell Cox, a former Los Angeles transit official who now promotes free-market-oriented solutions to transportation problems.

Formerly a gung-ho transit guy, Cox visited the Bay Area in the mid-1970s after BART first opened and rode all its routes, but his enthusiasm for transit diminished, in part, after seeing that these train systems always are plagued by massive cost overruns. That’s largely the result of union contracts that put public workers’ demands above the needs of the public by inflating compensation and restricting cost-saving innovations common in the private sector.

“BART was supposed to be a fully automated system and was supposed to pay its own way,” he told me on Tuesday. “The darn trains are largely run by computer.” He suggests that American transit officials look toward Stockholm, Sweden, and Melbourne, Australia — modern, progressive cities that put the operation of their transit systems out to bid to private operators, who cannot impose “unfunded liabilities” on the public.

Given California’s current political ethic, I wouldn’t bet the morning latte on any move toward privatization, but it is encouraging that more people understand that overly generous compensation deals for workers come at a price. Those who depend the most on public services are the ones who must pay it.