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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Behind the (ugh) BART strike

It looks as if BART workers are going to strike at midnight. And if it happens, I fear that BART management will try to turn public sentiment against the workers.

Here's what I know at this point:

The two sides were pretty close, essentially settled on wages and benefits. But management wanted the unions to give back on some work rules, and union negotiators say the membership would never go for those changes.

I just spoke to BART Board president Tom Radulovich who said, for example, that the two sides were arguing over a current rule that allows a worker who calls in sick one day, then works on a scheduled day off, to get overtime. BART wanted no overtime unless you actually work more than 40 hours a week.

There were some discussions, he said, and BART agreed that if a worker misses a day because of a scheduled vacation or because of military leave, he or she would get overtime for working an extra day. "But not the people who just don't show up," Radulovich said.

Now: I'm all for running a system efficiently, and I'm sure there are some work rules that ought to be changed. But this one? Well, think about it: A sick day is a day you're getting paid as if you were at work. That's in the contract. If you called in sick one day and worked four more, at 8 hours each, you'd get paid for 40 hours. You get a limited number of sick days a year, and those are, in essence, days you are getting paid not to work. (We all know you shouldn't take a sick day unless you're sick. Is there any employee anywhere in the world who gets paid sick days and hasn't called in to extend a vacation, apply for another job, or sit in the backyard in the sun?) You EARN those sick days; it's part of your pay.

So you take a sick day and work beyond your scheduled 40, and put in for overtime? Somehow, that doesn't outrage me.

Then there's the story of the pay stubs. Apparently, according to Radulovich, one BART worker gets paid to hand out pay stubs to the other workers, even when most got their money through electronic banking. That takes half a day, every pay period. "We can't do anything to modernize the system," he told me.

There has to be more at stake than that. I can't believe either side would engage in a costly, damaging strike over one worker taking four hours once every two weeks to hand out pay stubs. It's insane to think BART would be shut down over that.

At any rate, Roxanne Sanchez, the president of SEIU Local 1021, said that the unions asked to submit the work rule changes to binding arbitration, but BART refused. Radulovich said that wasn't true, although the general manager, Grace Crunican, said that management wouldn't submit just one part of the contract to arbitration. "They want the money on the table but they don't want the work rules on the table," she said on Channel 7.

Of course, it's tough for reporters at this point to know exactly what the details are, since both sides have agreed to keep the negotiations confidential. But it will all come out, and we'll be able to evaluate pretty quickly how reasonable or unreasonable management has been.

But for now, this is looking bitter -- and it's an odd place for Radulovich, who has long been considered the most progressive voice on the BART Board. If this strike happens, labor -- always among his biggest supporters -- is going to be furious at him, and a lot of the rest of the left in the city is going to go along.

That goes double if BART tries to demonize the employees. The Right has been trying for years to create the perception that people who work for the government are lazy and overpaid and that they cheat the system. Some do. So do private-sector workers. But most BART employees show up every day and do difficult jobs (you like cleaning shit out of elevators? I'd be taking sick days all the time). You can argue wages and benefits and what's appropriate, but BART management has an obligation not to play into the anti-public-employee handbook.

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