On Monday, 2,400 unionized workers for San Francisco’s commuter rail system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), went on strike after talks with management over contracts broke down. BART serves 400,000 riders on an average weekday. The strike happened after the union and management were unable to come to an agreement over a raise, contributions to health care and pensions, and safety protocols. Here is everything you need to know to understand what’s at stake.
Why are workers striking? The workers have experienced a pay freeze for the past five years. While the latest offer from BART officials includes a 2 percent annual raise, going up to 8 percent over four years, that is just barely above the increase in the cost of living this year. Union officials have also contested that it is contingent on factors including ambitious ridership increases, sales tax revenues, and reductions in the number of employees taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. “On the surface it looks like a raise,” said Antonette Bryant, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 told the SFGate. “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 have also demanded that employees begin contributing to pensions and pay $92 a month for health insurance.
What are they asking for? After agreeing to forgo a salary increase in 2009, the union is seeking a 5 percent annual raise over the next three years, amounting to 23 percent over four years. The union made $100 million in concessions four years ago to help the system during the recession. Now that BART is making a surplus, the union argues that it should share the gains with its workers.
What happened last time BART workers struck? The last time BART employees went on strike was in 1997, which lasted for six days. They were rejecting management’s offer of a 3 percent annual raise over three years. Unions also sought to eliminate a two-tier wage system that pays new employees less than veteran workers for the same job. That strike resulted in a four-year contract with a 7 percent raise and a one-time payment of $3,000 to all employees in lieu of a raise the first year.
How often does this happen? Major work stoppages, or strikes that involve 1,000 or more workers, have slowed to a trickle in the last decade, dropping from 400 in 1970 to just 19 in 2012. Union membership has also hit record lows, as slightly more than 11 percent of workers are organized. And a study has found that falling unionization levels have caused declining wages for the average worker. Wages experienced the largest drop ever in the first three months of the year and have been hitting record lows. But the problem has been going on for some time: Income for the bottom 90 percent of Americans rose by just $59 from 1966 to 2011, adjusted for inflation. Yet the rich have gotten richer: 121 percent of total income gains between 2009 and 2011 went to the top one percent of earners.