BART unions have long seen the strike as critical to their power. And as I wrote in July (“How Unions Won the BART Strike”), unions won the first strike because they obtained a much better contract than the pre-strike offer. But since July rider anger over the union’s ability to shut down the system has increased. Fueled by unfair articles in the SF Chronicle such as the one comparing getting a BART job to admission to Harvard and by a drumbeat of stories about “overpaid” workers, the pro-union Bay Area now overwhelmingly sides with management in the dispute.

BART's attacks on its own workforce have succeeded. The unions failed to appreciate public resentment toward their power to shut down the transit system that impacts so much of people's lives. The public was not prepared for months of stress over BART shutdowns, and one wonders if the unions would have gained greater leverage against the Board by building greater support among riders and avoiding strike threats.

I have been saddened but not surprised by the public's vehement public opposition to the BART unions in this labor dispute. It's troubling to see the public rally to the side of one of the Bay Area's worst public employers, yet understandable that people would resent that a labor dispute would cost other workers money and radically disrupt their lives.

BART management’s unfair bargaining, high-paid negotiator, excessive top management salaries, refusal to address safety concerns and overall lack of vision were eclipsed by anger against two unions threatening to shut BART down. Some believe that that management’s hardball tactics were designed to get the Legislature to ban transit strikes; yet were a shutdown not possible, public support for the union would have been stronger.

Public Support Matters

When we think of unions most successful labor disputes since the 1970’s, public support has been crucial. This was true for the UFW struggles in California’s fields in the 1970’s, the Teamsters’ successful UPS strike in the 1990’s, the various SEIU Justice for Janitors campaigns, and many more.

Since transit strikes are inherently unpopular because they cause public inconvenience, it was imperative that BART's unions spent at least a year before the contract's expiration building their case with the public. But this did not occur.

Neither SEIU 1021 nor ATU 1555 prepared the public for what has occurred since June. And while both unions may have been surprised by management’s initial scorched earth bargaining position, the 60-day cooling off period gave them a great opportunity to reset the debate. But strong organizing efforts to mobilize public support against management's extremism did not occur, enabling BART to build its own public support in the backlash against union strike threats.

By the unions not building their own public support, BART Board members were emboldened to avoid good faith bargaining. The unions were left with the strike as their only leverage, but their very raising of the threat steadily weakened public support for their position.

It's hard to recall another labor dispute where the bargaining positions of the parties were so obscured by management attacks on workers and by public resentment over a potential strike. No wonder BART allowed much of the cooling off period to pass without negotiating; management knew that as long as riders felt a shut down was hanging over their heads, resentment against the unions would build.

The Strike’s Impact

The unions believed that the strike threat was the only leverage that could get them a better contract. But we cannot know what binding arbitration would have brought, or whether a campaign that built public support by foregoing a strike threat would have forced BART Board members to offer a better deal.

We do know that the strike threat strategy brought the vast majority of riders to side with a previously unpopular public employers against two unions whose members have effectively operated a major urban transit system. That result, more than the final contract terms, should lead BART unions to pursue a more public-centered strategy during the next contract fight.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron