Bay Area Commuters at the Mercy of Transit Workers

Another week, another reminder that state and local governments are held hostage by their own employees. After a weekend of negotiations failed to yield an agreement, two of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (or BART) largest unions went on strike today. Worker contracts that dictated salary, pensions, healthcare, and safety expired at midnight on Sunday, June 30, for the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. When the BART District government agency and the two public employee unions could not come to an agreement, the unions walked away from negotiation at 8:30 pm. ATU Local President Antanonette Bryant remarked, “Our members aren’t interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice.”

The key disagreement was over a demand from the unions for a 23.5 percent raise over the next three years. This is in addition to the current average salary of BART transit workers of $83,157 in gross pay, up from $80,500 just since 2010. These workers also pay a flat monthly fee of $92 for health insurance. What is more frustrating is that this strike is being announced even after the BART transit authority had raised its offer of a 4 percent salary increase over four years to 8 percent. It even offered to sweeten the deal by reducing the monthly contributions these workers have to pay into their pension accounts. Even this was not enough.

The BART transit system currently moves more than 40 percent of all commuters into San Francisco from the East Bay. A strike would disrupt the commutes of 400,000 travelers and could add 60,000 cars to an already congested highway system. This is yet another example of the dangers of organized labor in the public service. BART should immediately move to replace the 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff that will be going on strike today with non-union transit workers to allow the transit system to continue operating. Seventy years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt predicted the kinds of threats public employee unions would be making against taxpayers:

I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

If a union in the private sector demands salaries and benefits that prevents an employer from operating profitably, the employer either goes out of business or replaces union employees with non-union employees (if the business resides in a right-to-work state). This has served to restrain private sector unions from making unreasonable demands on their employers in recent years. But governments cannot go out of business. When governments run into fiscal crises brought about by unsustainable pension and salary contracts for public employees, taxes are raised and essential services are cut. Public employee unions spend millions to influence the outcomes of state and local elections to keep incumbent supporters in power. This ensures an arrangement where unions are essentially negotiating with themselves.  After a half-century of taxpayer blackmail at the hands of public employees, one this is clear: organized labor cannot be trusted in the public sector.