Labor's power in the United States is on the decline -- less than 12 percent of all workers are organized these days -- but unions still wield power in California. Labor is particularly strong in the Bay Area, where few politicians last long who can't count on money and clout from the unions.
That could be why local elected officials aren't taking sides in the labor strife over at BART. From U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on down, politicians haven't had much to say (aside from hoping that everything gets resolved one way or another).
Business leaders aren't happy about this. The Chamber of Commerce on Friday issued a release demanding that the politicians do something -- but again refrained from taking a side. Only a few members of the state Legislature have sounded off with an opinion -- and it seemed to sympathize with the unions.
That politicians would be loathe to cross labor is not surprising. Any watcher of state or local politics is familiar with the purple-shirted army of Service Employees International Union, which organizes state and municipal workers as well as health care workers and others. SEIU commands sizable volunteers and cash and is a constant presence at Democratic Party headquarters in every election.
Business has also been reluctant to criticize one side or the other. Aside from making its opposition to a strike known and advocating a change in state law to bring about binding arbitration in future BART labor talks -- in other words, if both sides are at an impasse like the present one, a contract is written by a third party and both sides must abide by it in lieu of a strike -- the Chamber of Commerce's message today calls only for an agreement of some kind -- and takes pols to task for "standing on the sidelines."
No lobby has been as opposed to BART workers as the Bay Area Council, a lobby group funded by the area's largest corporations. It was the Council who estimated that commuters' two-hours plus extra time spent in traffic is costing the economy $73 million a day (though it was also the Council who estimated that the America's Cup would pump $1 billion plus into the economy, so these numbers might be a little fuzzy).
There's no doubt that BART's struggle with its unions, SEIU 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, has been ugly. But it's also been disingenuous, according to some legislators in the East Bay.
Following Wednesday's hearing -- when three labor experts appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown heard out both sides and heard that BART and the unions can't even agree on how far apart they are -- East Bay Assemblymembers Nancy Skinner, Rob Bonta, and Bill Quirk noted that management hasn't been entirely honest.
BART management has said that the average BART worker takes home $79,500, which has made the riding public incredulous over the notion of station agents out-earning lawyers. Except it appears that's not entirely fair: that figure includes upper management, including $300,000-a year General Manager Grace Crunican. When actual front-line workers' salaries are averaged, station agents earn $64,000 and train operators make $63,000.
Still a decent take-home, but "inconsistencies in information BART management made public" doesn't really make for the "good faith negotiations" that the East Bay lawmakers asked for.
As for the prospect of another strike? The two sides are far apart, and BART appears to be unwilling to budge from its offers for raises and increased employee contributions to benefits, which unions say would leave wages flat after $100 million in givebacks in 2009, the last time BART and its unions signed a new contract.
BART is ready to make a deal, BART Board President Tom Radulovich said Thursday, "as long as the unions are ready to move towards a reasonable settlement."
That should be telling. Unions appear just as dug in, and could offer 48 hours' notice of a second strike tonight. Brown also has the power to issue a 60-day cooling off period, if a deal can't be made by Sunday (and unless one side caves, it appears it cannot).
But if the BART board needs political muscle to help them out, at the present they are out of luck. Politicians know which side they're on -- no one's, for as long as neutrality is possible.