Many California commuters were inconvenienced earlier this summer when Bay Area Rapid Transit services were forcibly suspended for four and a half days at the hands of a union-led strike. This weekend, the Amalgamated Transit Union threatened to resurrect that strike if BART management officials refuse to adequately concede on hot-button issues, namely pensions, health care, and wages.
The ATU set the official strike countdown clock to expire Sunday night at 11:59, before which a deal must be made in order to avoid vast disturbances for the 400,000 customers who ride the Bay Area's largest transit system each day. Hearkening back to other states’ recent diminishment of collective bargaining rights, a union advocate Bob Allen reminds: “This is not Wisconsin, this is not Michigan.” While unions are undeniably often a source of inefficiency, especially pertaining to public works, this strike has little to do with either corporate or union greed. Rather, rapidly increasing health care and pension costs are to blame for the seemingly irreconcilable disparities between the groups.
Transit workers believe that they are under-compensated for their work, work that they hold the public incorrectly perceives as unskilled. A BART operator, Ms. Sarah Gwaltney, argues that neither the public nor BART management appreciate the work that she or her coworkers perform, charging that "All they see is that we push a button. It's so much more than that."
Without demeaning the work that their employees contribute, BART management claims that in light of surging pension costs, toward which workers pay nothing, it is unreasonable that BART employees demand higher wages — it is too costly for BART and its customers.
Citing a 251% uptick in health care costs and a 152% uptick in pension costs over the last 12 and 10 years, respectively, BART is not compelled to further inflate the cost of labor. Although workers admittedly pay an extra $17 a month towards their health care benefits, the contribution far from compensates for the vast increase in payments that BART has seen over the last decade.
With obvious disparity in interests, it is unclear whether or not a deal will be made by the Sunday night deadline. Regardless, BART has admonished the union merely for threatening a strike. A spokesman for the service, Rick Rice, argues that “a strike only stalls and delays the decisions that need to be made while using our riders as pawns.”
Another spokesperson for BART, Jim Allison, insists, “We believe there is both a way to ensure our employees are adequately compensated and that the public is served by reining in the rising cost of benefits."
Another strike would impose a large burden on both parties: Workers would lose wages and BART would lose roughly $114,000 a day. Not to mention the inconvenience a strike would pose for commuters, or the drop in revenues it would cause for many local businesses. BART has actually issued a webpage to help customers alter their commuting habits should a strike materialize and persist.
A deal will eventually be made, whether before or after a strike ensues, but the long-term discrepancies will remain as long as health care costs continue to escalate. Especially with the uncertainty that the Affordable Care Act's implementation will cause, these negotiations are merely highlighting the fundamental issues that remain in our health care system.