When workers go on strike, the first thing commentators tend to focus on is compensation — wages, pensions and health care benefits. These are easy to quantify, and therefore end up featured prominently in media coverage of labor disputes. No story about Bay Area Rapid Transit’s recent labor strife would be complete, for example, without mentioning the $71,000 base pay and $11,000 overtime earned by workers from the unions now on strike.
But more often than not, it’s not these easily memorizable numbers that become the sticking point for labor negotiations. Rather, it’s something much more prosaic: work rules.
“Work rules” is a broad category, but it covers anything specified in contracts other than compensation. That’s everything from staffing levels to overtime and calling in sick. Employers often argue that work rules unnecessarily constrain agencies and lead to a lack of productivity, while employees call them crucial protections against unreasonable demands.
One famous example was the newly formed Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s regional rail strike in 1983, which involved employees who ran commuter rail service between Philadelphia and its suburbs. It concerned things like whether workers from the old Pennsylvania and Reading railroads could operate and work on trains in each others’ old turfs, and whether workers in the maintenance shops could branch out from their “craft union”-designated roles and perform tasks that they’d been trained for, but which weren’t traditionally performed by their union.
Earlier, the Illinois Central in Chicago — now the Metra Electric District commuter rail line — was hit with a strike after it tried to drop conductors from its trains (similar to what the New York City subway wants to do today, but has so far not been allowed) and run them more like rapid transit, with commensurate staffing and frequency. Unlike SEPTA, which eventually won its strike, the Illinois Central was not allowed to reduce its staffing levels. It eventually went bankrupt and the government had to take it over.
Freight railroads, too, saw similar disputes over work rules. The Florida East Coast Railway’s 14-year strike in the 1960s and ’70s got so famously heated that at one point, strikers dynamited two trains. Among the work rule changes that the railroad sought, and which the strikers resisted, was the use of a single two-man crew for a full eight hours — standard practice now among American freight railroads, but at the time a novelty that bolstered the railroad’s bottom line and struck fear in the hearts of workers.
And so it goes half a century later. BART workers went on strike at midnight after management and labor became deadlocked. Over what? Not wages and benefits, reports the AP:
Roxanne Sanchez, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said the transit agency and its two largest unions have “come extremely close” to agreement on economic, health care and pension issues. However, she said the parties remained apart on work rule issues.
The local CBS affiliate also flagged work rules as the final stumbling block:
[BART General Manager Grace] Crunican said the sticking points related to management’s proposed work rules, which she said are essential to maintaining BART’s effectiveness.
“As we’ve gone back and forth, the district made it clear that we had certain rights that we had to maintain in this package,” she said.
Crunican said the rights laid out in the proposal give management the flexibility it needs to maintain an efficient system and cut out wasteful practices.
She gave an example of pay stubs, saying management needs the ability to have pay stubs delivered electronically rather than be required to have a worker deliver paper stubs to employees.
The San Jose Mercury News suggested that there are still compensation issues to hammer out, but also included these details on the fight over work rules:
Both sides were inching closer on the main economic issues that had separated them for more than six months but were still about 4 percent apart on total wage increases. And unions said they were fed up after management tried to impose new work rules to limit overtime and other costs. […]
The other big remaining issue is BART’s refusal to let a neutral arbitrator give the final ruling on various perks that workers want to keep but which management says are inefficient.
Among the work rules BART wants to change: Currently, union workers can call in sick, work four days and get paid overtime on the fifth day; employees can leave projects in the middle of a job to go work on something else; and employees can receive paper paycheck stubs instead of electronic notices.
The issue of work rules is by no means limited to labor disputes in transit. The Chicago public school teacher strike last year was more teacher evaluation and the length of the workday than basic compensation-related questions about wages and benefits.
Work rule issues might not be as easy to cram into a sound bite, but if you want to understand the BART strike and modern transit labor relations writ large, there’s no way to avoid them.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.