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Monday, July 1, 2013

Behind the BART strike

On my way to the noontime BART protest at United Nations Plaza, I stopped off at the 24th Street station. It's normally packed at rush hour, and busy pretty much all day; it was a ghost town. The security screen was in place; no entrance, no people, no trains. Although there is word that management might try to run some trains, the main corridor through San Francisco was utterly shut down.

At the rally, Larry Bradshaw, who's with SEIU Local 1021, told me that the governor had asked both sides to keep talking, but there were no negotiations scheduled. "We're on strike," he said.

If BART wants the workers back on the job, Bradshaw said, management is going to have to come forward with "a substantive new offer."

The problem with the current stalemate, on the surface, is that BART is offering a pay raise that would be, at best, equal to increased pension and healthcare payments, which means for all practical purposes no raise at all. And after five years without a pay increase (while, as you may have noticed, the cost of living in the Bay Area has gone way up) the BART workers are fed up.

But there's a larger issue here, and it's a signal that the BART strike may not be the last job action by public employees in the region.

Jerry Brown is a smart politician, one of the most canny governors in California history. But 35 years ago, he made a huge political mistake, one that has caused irreparable damage to the Golden State. In 1978, thanks to Brown's frugality (and rapid growth in California) the state government was running a billion-dollar surplus. The same growth, though, was driving up property values -- and thus property taxes -- on longtime residents, some of whom were on fixed incomes and faced the loss of their homes.

Property taxes were local government's business, but no matter: Seniors who couldn't pay a soaring tax bill saw the governor sitting on a billion dollars -- and doing nothing to help them.

So nearly every county in the state voted in favor of Prop. 13, which has decimated public education and local services and created a mess of the state budget.

Brown, in retrospect, should have used some of that state surplus to help local governments cut property taxes; that might have staved off the Great Tax Revolt. But he was thinking short term, and made the biggest error of his life.

So now Brown is proud to have signed a balanced budget, and the state's finances are looking better. BART ridership is way up. The SF city budget is better than it's been in years.

But for a decade, public employees have been accepting pay cuts; BART workers gave back $100 million. That's a lot more palatable when your agency (and the state) is broke and everyone knows that sacrifice is needed. But now there's a lot of pent-up demand, and politicians at every level need to be aware of it.

BART has capital needs, and has to put aside money to replace aging trains and buy new ones. Everyone knows that. But BART workers, like other public employees, have their own needs after years of austerity -- and it's up to BART management to recognize that.

If the governor and local officials want to avoid widespread public employee strikes in the next year or two, they ought to remember the lesson of Prop. 13. Yes, balance the budget. Yes, be prudent. But also recognize that you aren't starting from zero here; working people have given up a lot in the lean years, as as things get better, they want their share.

1 comment:

  1. Silicon Valley company Avego is responding to the BART strike by offering helicopter rides to frustrated commuters: