San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition
BART, unions reach accord
Deal likely averts strikes — layoffs still possible
BART and its largest labor unions, eager to avoid contentious negotiations while the transit system recovers from precipitous ridership drops during the pandemic, said Wednesday that they’ve agreed on threeyear contracts.
The tentative agreements call for no raises the first year, up to 2% the second year and 2.5% the year after that — but only if BART’s ridership recovers to at least 60% of prepandemic levels. The contracts would take effect July 1 and run through June 30, 2024. BART’s Board of Directors is set to vote on the contracts Dec. 3.
As BART struggles to rebuild its ridership, the deal will likely stave off potential worker strikes for the next 3½ years.
“The agreements will allow BART to focus on providing consistent and reliable service and demonstrates our collective approach to addressing the pandemic and welcoming back
riders,” BART General Manager Robert Powers and leaders of BART’s three labor unions said in a joint statement.
Approving the contracts would also avert difficult contract negotiations. Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have already ratified the pacts. The unions represent 3,261 workers: train operators, station agents, maintenance workers and mechanics and a variety of administrative staff.
Avoiding strikes for the next three years would cap a decade of labor peace between BART and its three major unions after two ugly strikes in 2013. The unions walked off the job, stopping service in July and October of that year after intense bargaining sessions failed to bring the two sides together.
The strikes caused Bay Areawide gridlock, with hourlong waits at the Bay Bridge and lengthy queues for transbay buses and ferries. Two managers were killed during the strike, struck by a train on a training run, while standing next to the tracks.
Not surprisingly, the strikes angered commuters and led to calls — eventually unsuccessful — to ban strikes by BART workers. But in 2016, BART and its unions managed to do that on their own, reaching an agreement ahead of 2017 contract talks in an effort to assure passengers, and voters considering a November bond measure, that no strike was forthcoming.
The most recent negotiation started about 2½ months ago, said Michael Jones, BART’s deputy general manager, as BART began to climb out of the deep ridership trough caused by the pandemic and stay-home orders. In the early months of the pandemic, ridership plunged to just 3% of prepandemic levels.
The deal does not preclude layoffs or further negotiations over cuts to avoid them, said Shana Dines, BART’s labor relations director. Last week, the BART board approved an incentive plan to encourage employees to retire. If the plan doesn’t attract enough applicants, layoffs could occur or the unions could agree to other cuts to avoid them — anything from pay reductions to increased benefit contributions to unpaid days off.
“Anything the unions want us to consider, we’ll discuss,” Jones said.
Officials from both BART and the unions called the agreement fair as well as a sign of their vastly improved relationship.
“It’s a fair deal for both sides,” said John Arantes, president of SEIU 1021, one of the three unions representing BART workers. “The conversation we had with management (centered on) how can we make this so both sides are winning and how can the district be ready to spring back to full service when ridership comes back.”
Both sides worked together, Dines said, with an eye toward making sure strife between BART and its unions didn’t derail its recovery plan.
“We’ve had a really great relationship with our unions,” she said. “It’s been getting better over the past few years but has especially improved during the pandemic. It was very obvious that what was best for our union, for us and for our riders was to settle this early and focus on recovery.”
BART board President Lateefah Simon, a daily BART rider herself, said she was proud of the agreement, which she called “an unprecedented moment.”
“This is a new way of working, and I’m really excited about it.” she said. “It’s not just that we got to this deal, but the work behind it. We all realized that management and labor could and should work together in a crisis.”
Director Debora Allen, however, considers the early contract imprudent given the financial uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and the recovery. She said she plans to vote no. BART faces deep deficits over the next 19 months, she said, questioning the wisdom of locking in a contract that doesn’t reduce expenses — or staffing.
While the tentative contract doesn’t rule out layoffs, Allen said, it fails to take advantage of the chance to reduce the size of BART’s staff to an appropriate level while ridership is low — about 13% of its prepandemic level.
“Why now?” she said of the contract, which she expects will pass. “Why are we binding ourselves to this threeyear deal now with so much uncertainty?”
For BART’s unionized workers to get raises in the 2023 and 2024 budget years, BART’s ridership will have to sharply rebound. Passengers take about 50,000 rides a day compared to 410,000 before the shelterinplace orders took effect in midMarch. For pay increases to kick in, daily ridership will need to reach 246,000, 60% of the prepandemic level. Employees would get a 0.4% raise if that happens in 2023 and a 0.75% increase if it occurs in 2024. A ridership rise to 75%, or 307,500 passengers, would yield a 1% raise in 2023 and 1.25% in 2024.
“Not everyone’s super happy but we know that it’s fair,” Arantes said of the contract, which was ratified by 93% of SEIU members voting. “People realized we’d have to make sacrifices.”