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Monday, July 8, 2013

The media attacks on BART workers that miss the real story

I'm glad to see that Willie Brown, who is going to pick up a check for $750,000 for his role in a recent bankruptcy case, thinks BART workers who earn $60,000 a year are overpaid:

So it was easy for BART management to hammer home its side of the argument: Operators and station agents average $62,000 a year in salaries, another $10,000 or so in overtime, a health care plan that costs employees just $92 a month for the whole family and a pension to which they don't contribute a dime.
Most people riding the trains don't have that type of deal. Getting people to see the unions' side, that it amounts to fair and honest compensation, is all but hopeless: Explaining how those benefits came to be practically requires a one-on-one conversation.
Actually, explaining how those benefits came to be is relatively simple. It's called "collective bargaining."

In past years, before the housing bubble and the stock market crash, a lot of public-employee pension funds were doing just grand. Government agencies were projecting that the pension systems were fully funded into the distant future. So when employee unions came to the table to talk contracts, management (including, by the way, then-Mayor Willie Brown) were happy to avoid big raises (which would require tax or fare hikes) by offering to pick up the cost of pension contributions.

Which were, at that point, free, since the stock market was doing so well.

The unions (properly) saw pensions at what they are: Deferred compensation. Instead of taking a bigger paycheck today, they settled -- in fair negotiations -- for more money later.

Now, of course, after the bankers screwed up the economy, those pension funds aren't so healthy and public agencies have to put in money to make good on the deal they cut -- with their eyes wide open -- during the good years. Not the fault of unionized workers that they negotiated a decent contract.

If you don't like what BART pays its workers, look at the BART Board, where most of the current members were around the last time a contract was approved.

The idea that most private-sector workers don't get these kinds of pensions is nothing new -- it's the result of a decline in private-sector unionization and a push to relieve employers of pension obligations by turning them into 401 (k) plans. Is that the fault of the BART workers?

In the meantime, here's the story that getting missed:  BART's hired gun -- the guy who is taking point on the contract negotiation -- works for a company that has a history of moving to privatize public transit. Thomas Hock works for Veolia Transport, a French company that not only has worked to undermine funding of public transit in Congress but has a bad record of taking over formerly public bus systems and cutting service to make a profit.

Some union members tell me they fear he wanted to precipitate a strike -- just so that the public would be inconvenienced and support for the union would dwindle. If that's the case (and I haven't been able to reach him for comment) then the Chronicle is playing right into the game.

Of course, it may not be working -- Randy Shaw says that the unions have already won the strike. I think that's a little optimistic -- I don't see BART backing down right away, and there's a lot of work yet to be done -- but when I talk to people about this, and explain the background, they all wind up supporting labor.

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