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Friday, July 5, 2013

BART Strike: Politicians Ducked This One

Posted By on Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 12:30 PM

BART returns ... and there was much rejoicing
  • BART returns ... and there was much rejoicing

Once again, Bay Area commuters have learned that the only thing worse than bitching about BART is bitching about not having BART to bitch about. 

Following last night's announcement that the rail service and its striking employees will extend workers' expired contract 30 more days while continuing negotiations, trains are scheduled to hit the tracks at 3 p.m. today. And there shall be much rejoicing. And then more grumbling. 

Whatever happens, it figures to commence without the degree of political grandstanding attached to prior BART strikes and near-strikes. In 2009, local elected officials publicly hondled both sides and, following through on Woody Allen's dictum about 80 percent of life being just showing, showed up. Politicos were even more involved in 2001, publicly cajoling the system for a settlement and -- BART officials say -- pledging to backfill the money (which didn't happen). And, of course, in 1997 Willie Brown -- NOW A CHRONICLE COLUMNIST -- saved us all. 

That's not happening now. Politicians have been tepid at best in getting involved in the current BART labor morass -- even as it boiled over, unlike past morasses. And there's a reason for that.

Now, that's not to say that some labor-friendly politicians didn't get involved. They did. In doing so, however, they really did do the least they could do.

As noted on Uptown Almanac, the press statements released by Sen. Leland Yee and Supervisor David Campos were virtually identical in their phrasings to the point of being ostensibly cut-and-pasted from a template. 

Both, oddly, capitalized the "M" in "Management." 

BART officials we spoke with said that, yes, they did get letters and phone calls from elected officials urging a settlement, per the past. But, to a greater extent than in prior years, these were "obligatory" "check-the-box" calls. And that's because state and local elected officials urging BART to meet union demands in 2013 have been forced to deal with pension and health care struggles of their own that their 2009, 2005, 2001, etc. iterations did not. An elected official at either the state or local level leaning on BART to acquiesce to its workers' demands on benefits is now in the position of having to explain why she would be unwilling to provide such benefits to the workers in her own agency. 

click to enlarge Take a load off, Jack!
  • Take a load off, Jack!
In San Francisco, workers pay at least 7.5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. BART employees do not contribute to theirs (but have offered to pony up 0.5 percent). 

Pensions, to put it mildly, are tricky. The state's pension plan currently assumes a 7.5 percent return on its investment -- meaning you've got to make that much to break even. That assumed return is likely to be lowered in the near future, which will necessitate greater employer contributions. Looming actuarial tweaks accounting for retirees' longer lifespans will also require more up-front contributions -- all of which, in the present, is coming from BART and not its workforce. 

In the past four years, pension and healthcare matters have oozed out from beneath the rugs our elected officials long swept them under. The general public may not care to wander into hardcore financial data, but no one can pretend this stuff isn't important anymore. 

So, the 30-day extension is good news indeed. Without an ongoing, rancor-inducing, money-draining strike, perhaps both sides can craft creative and nuanced solutions to stem their gaps. Those are the sorts of things you can't do in the midst of a sloganeering campaign and reports of commuters' arms and legs hanging out of overstuffed buses. 

Unions' claims that BART is operating on a surplus would require ignoring the system's longterm capital needs. On the other hand, with fewer employees than in the past, BART is moving more people. BART is doing more with less, and its workforce deserves to be compensated for that. The trick, over these next 30 days, will be finding out what everyone can live with -- now and in the future. 

This task probably won't be accomplished with input from glad-handing political outsiders. Constituents don't appreciate it when government officials tell them to do as they say, not as they do. 

Neither do fellow government officials. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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