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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chuck Nevius plays old divide-and-conquer game

I didn't expect the Chron's C.W. Nevius to be sympathetic to the BART strikers; he's a pretty conservative guy when it comes to economic issues, and public-sector workers aren't his fave. But it's worth talking about his column today, because it represents a very frustrating, if time-honored, approach to bad-mouthing unions.

Nevius argues that the BART unions lack public support, in part because their members don't contribute to their pensions and make a (moderately) decent living:

If there is one paragraph that shows up in news stories over and over — and is repeated again and again in comments about the strike — it is the one about health care and pensions.

“Currently, BART employees, union and non-union, make no contribution to their state pension plans and pay $92 a month for health insurance,” a Chronicle story said Monday.

That’s doesn’t evoke much sympathy for many workers in the Bay Area who are finding their health care costs are rising and pensions are evaporating. And the salary, over $60,000 with benefits and overtime, doesn’t sound so bad either.

BART workers say they haven’t had a raise for several years, but join the crowd. Lots of us can say that. And the fact that BART middle management have already accepted terms and are back at work now doesn’t help the cause.
 The Nation has a good take on how the media is fueling resentment against the workers, and the unions tell their side of the story here. But there's a serious problem with the Nevius argument that goes beyond what's been printed so far.

Here's the deal: If you're a General Motors worker in the 1930s, and you threaten to strike for better wages, should unemployed people scoff at you? Should management be able to say that there are plenty of people who are worse off and will take your job if you make too many demands?

Because that's what Nevius is saying. If you work for a company that doesn't provide decent pensions or health care, you shouldn't sympathize with workers who get those benefits? Labor ought to be divided because some areas have more effective union representation? The private sector (which lost many of the same gains the BART workers have with the decline in unionization) should hate the public sector?

Pensions are part of a labor negotiation. BART workers agreed in the past to accept lower wages in exchange for better pension contributions. That's common in contracts. The Chron's unionized workers probably cut a different deal.

But creating this kind of anger by saying that the unionized workers are doing better than non-union workers (duh) is really pretty low.

Oh, and BART management? The ones who settled more quickly? The average pay for those folks is well above $100,000 a year.


  1. Excellent points Tim. Your analysis, however, is still overshadowed by the huge harm being caused by stranding 400,000 plus daily commuters. With less than a thousand BART drivers and station agents, this is a 400 to 1 ratio. Should 1 have the right to harm 400 for their economic betterment? This is a difficult question.

    Many in the public have already made up their minds about this strike without any help from Chuck Nevius or other media outlets. They are the public who is either directly deprived of their way to work or deprived of the services now no longer provided because those who perform them can't get to work.

  2. You leave the taxpayers out of you analysis. This is not a matter of "better" benefits, this is a matter of benefits that have traditionally been offered because elected officials have been in the pockets of unions. Retiring in your 50's has never been a sustainable benefit, which is why this sort of defined benefit went away in the private sector quite some time ago. Unlimited health care for any number of dependents is also not a sustainable benefit. Other benefits are just plain bad policy that is not tolerated in the private sector like the number the no/call no/shows per employee per year (I think the average is 40).
    In short, the same standards of conduct and productivity need to exist at BART that do in the private sector. Why are we putting up with rude station agents, incompetence and so on?