OAKLAND — With one Northern California transit strike averted and another looming, a panel convened by Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday began investigating the dispute between the Bay Area Rapid Transit district and its biggest unions.
During a lengthy hearing that rang with anger and distrust, officials with the 104-mile train system emphasized the disruption and pain caused by a 41/2-day strike in July, how BART's 400,000 weekday riders had been forced to scramble for their livelihoods and how the "already fragile economic recovery" would be threatened by a further walkout.
"Regular commutes of 30 minutes took as long as three hours during the strike," BART General Manager Grace Crunican told the three-member panel. "Waitresses, hotel workers and other service employees lost wages because they were simply unable to get to work."
Union representatives — some of whom referred to BART only as "the employer" — derided the district for what they said was an unwillingness to bargain in good faith. They listed a catalog of safety problems: two workers dead on the job in 12 years, dozens of station agents assaulted every quarter, and a 43% rise in workplace injuries because of short staffing from a two-year hiring freeze.
"BART employees earn less than they did in the Great Recession, even though they work more, they work harder and they endure a larger number of injuries," said Kate R. Hallward, chief counsel for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. "BART's proposals are essentially pay cuts in disguise….This is a time that BART has resources."
Around 2,600 BART workers walked off the job in early July at a cost to the regional economy that one local business group estimated at $73 million in lost productivity alone. Just hours before workers were set to strike again Monday morning, Brown stepped in at the behest of BART management.
The governor ordered an investigation into the dispute and workers were prohibited from striking for seven days — because a second walkout would "significantly disrupt public transportation services and … endanger the public's health, safety and welfare," he said in a letter Sunday night.
Once Brown hears from the three-member board about how far apart BART and its unions are, he could then ask the state attorney general's office to petition "any court of competent jurisdiction" for a 60-day cooling-off period.
BART officials want the cooling-off period. The unions — ATU 1555, SEIU Local 1021 and AFSCME Local 3993 — whose members were set to strike over disagreements in pay, healthcare benefits and pension contributions, do not.
"We heard the district say, 'Give us more time,'" said Vincent A. Harrington Jr., attorney for SEIU. "How much is enough? We had until June 30. That wasn't enough. We had an extension. That was not enough either."
BART and its unions disagreed on almost everything during the daylong hearing Wednesday — whether a cooling-off period was necessary, whether an agreement was possible by Sunday night, how much money was in BART's budget, what it should be used for and what the average employee makes.
They also disagreed on how far apart their proposals were on the critical issues of wages, pension and healthcare. BART officials told the panel that the parties' proposals were $62 million apart over a period of three years; union representatives said the gap was actually $56 million.
There were only three things both sides seemed to agree on: No one wants another strike. The only way to reach an agreement is for both sides to come to the table. Both sides haven't.
"It takes two sides," said Vicki Nuetzel, a senior BART attorney. "We submitted proposals. We had no response to the medical proposal until very recently."
"You need two to bargain," Harrington said, "but there is no one on the other side of the table. It's like a tango. You can't do it by yourself very effectively."
On the plus side of the stormy Bay Area transportation picture, commuters Wednesday were spared the pain of a bus strike after a last-minute deal was reached on pay and medical benefits for hundreds of union drivers and mechanics.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 had threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m., shutting down service and leaving 181,000 riders scrambling.
The tentative deal reached late Tuesday night included a 9.5% raise over three years, with Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District employees making contributions to their healthcare plans. According to a message posted to the union's Facebook page, the deal also addressed employee health and safety issues.
AC Transit serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties in the East Bay and takes commuters across the San Francisco Bay via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.
In a statement, ATU President Yvonne Williams thanked a public already on edge over the BART labor dispute.
"This agreement protects workers, helps riders and keeps service running," she said.
La Ganga reported from Oakland and Wells from Los Angeles.