For the first time since 1997, public transit workers in San Francisco are on strike, resulting in a massive headache for commuters in the Bay Area.
The city’s San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, commonly known as BART, officially shut down at 2 a.m. on Monday morning after the BART union and BART officials failed to reach an agreement regarding the workers’ contract.
“Regretfully, we have to let the riding public know that we will not be operating,” said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 945 train operators and station agents, at a midnight press conference. “Our members aren’t interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice.”
While the city’s buses and ferries are still operating, commuters will not be able to use the BART train service. With more than 400,000 riders every day, the San Francisco BART rail system is the fifth-largest in the U.S. Reports from local media indicate that the absence of the rail system has put another 60,000 vehicles on already-clogged roads in the city.
Union representatives say employees have gone five years without a pay raise and agreed four years ago to cut $100 million in salaries and benefits to help the system recover from the down economy. But now that demand for public transportation has increased and BART has a financial surplus, union officials say workers should be given some of that extra money.
The unions — representing about 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff — have asked for a 5 percent raise each year for the next three years. In addition, union negotiators asked for larger contributions to employees’ pensions and health insurance premiums.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, BART employees don’t contribute to their state pension plans and pay around $92 a month for health insurance. The average salary for a train operator ranges from about $60,000 to $71,000 in base salary, and typical employees earn about $11,000 in overtime annually, according to the Chronicle.
Dorothy Dugger, a former general manager of BART who made headlines for being the second-highest-paid head of a transportation agency in California, earned about $354,010 a year before she resigned in May 2011. Dugger stepped down after numerous complaints were lodged about BART’s service, cleanliness and her leadership, but she stayed on the BART payroll for 19 months after her resignation. In 2012, after her resignation, Duggar remained BART’s highest-paid employee.
In response to the union’s request, BART officials proposed a 2 percent annual raise for employees and said they would reduce the minimum amount employees must contribute to their pensions and health insurance premiums. But the union rejected the offer, saying it would actually result in employees losing money.
“On the surface it looks like a raise,” Bryant said. “But it’s not really a raise. It certainly leaves us in the red — 3 to 4 percent lower than our wages now.”
BART officials maintain that while the budget currently has a surplus, that extra money needs to be used to modernize and improve the rail system and rail cars. It is also needed to build a new train maintenance facility and a new train control system, they say.
“There are times when you have to make a statement, and that’s what we’re doing now,” said Des Patten, president of the BART professional chapter of SEIU. “BART management needs to offer us something new to consider.”
BART officials say they offered an 8 percent raise for employees over a four-year period, but the union representatives turned it down and left the negotiations around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“It’s not even dark yet and the unions left for the evening,” said Alicia Trost, BART spokeswoman. “BART negotiations have a tradition of going until midnight – even past midnight. We apologize to our riders. … We’re sorry they’ve been dragged into this labor mess.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We feel we have a very good offer on the table,” said Rick Rice, a BART spokesman, adding that “the mediator will be reaching out to all of us to resume the talks as soon as possible.”
As of the writing of this article no talks had been scheduled between the two groups for Monday.
San Franciscans respond to the strike
The last BART strike, which occurred in 1997, lasted six days. While the train system is shut down due to the strike, officials are urging BART commuters to carpool, take a bus or ferry, or work from home. If commuters must drive to work, they should leave early or stay later than normal, officials said.
Prachi Bora is a San Francisco resident who relies on BART to commute to work. She told a local NBC affiliate that she didn’t mind BART workers striking for better pay, but said she wished she would have known the train would not be running sooner, as she was stuck in a long line to board one of the city’s buses.
Linda Pallotta agreed with Bora, saying that she thought BART workers deserved more money.
Michael Giannini disagreed with Bora and Pallotta and said he hoped that BART officials would be able to “bust this strike.”
“I’m all for livable wages but these people deserve no sympathy,” he said.
Though rough for many, Monday morning’s commute could have been much worse since the city’s AC Transit Workers, who operate the bus lines, were considering a strike on Monday, as well. While residents did not know until Monday morning that the train service had stopped, rumors of a strike have been circulating for the past few weeks as negotiations between the two sides seemed to indicate reaching an agreement would not be an easy feat.
Union officials say they will begin negotiating with BART officials once management sends a new offer. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, management did send a new proposal, but union officials said they were “unimpressed” and decided not to return to the bargaining table.
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