The Bay Area Rapid Transit strike is over, so what were they fighting over to begin with? The strike was not mostly over compensation issues – wages, healthcare benefits and pensions – but rather work rules.
Over the weekend, a pall had been cast over negotiations after the deaths of one union worker and one contractor, who were struck by a non-passenger train. BART’s unions — Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 — used the occasion to stand firm on what they called “work rules [that] protect our members from the type of accidents that happened.” (How firm they actually stood remains to be seen.)
Though generally passed over by the media in favor of easier-to-understand issues like wages and health care benefits, work rules often play a crucial role in labor negotiations and had emerged as the “primary stumbling block”: during the latest BART strike. Management said they cost the railroad tens of millions of dollars a year in unwarranted overtime and lost productivity, while the unions saw them as essential protections.
While we mentioned a few in a post last week, below we’ve compiled a more comprehensive list of work rules that were at stake. These fall into roughly three categories. Some relate to overtime issues, others to tasks that workers perform. (Compensation and productivity rules sometimes bleed into each other. Management might, for example, take a productivity hit in order to avoid paying overtime, or vice-versa.) And then some, likely the least important — NBC reported on Monday that the unions had accepted management’s position on these before the strike ended — relate to technology that management would like the unions to use.
BART wants the flexibility to schedule employees for either four 10-hour shifts per week, or five eight-hour shifts per week, without a lengthy consultation process and the ability to turn down changes on the part of unions. This would increase productivity, they say, and might even give workers more opportunities for overtime.
BART officials said four ten-hour shifts make the most sense for workers who do important maintenance work when there is limited or no train service late at night and on weekends because they want to take full advantage of that time window.
But five eight-hour shifts are better for other jobs, they said.
BART officials said they actually want some train operators to work 15 or 30 minutes of overtime five days a week so the operators can complete two roundtrips each day.
They said it would be inefficient if the train drivers worked four ten-hour shifts because there would then be at least an hour of wasted time every day.
Antonette Bryant, president of the ATU local, told the Wall Street Journal that the proposed rule changes “would put managers in the position to change the rules for our members day-by-day and shift-by-shift,” saying that “train operators and station agents and other members would be at risk for ongoing and systematic abuse by management on a day-to-day basis with no recourse.”
An unnamed union representative also told the Associated Press that the existing rules, which enforce consistent schedules, help workers juggle childcare and other obligations.
One issue mentioned in nearly every media account is how to calculate overtime. Some BART employees can essentially convert sick days into extra pay by calling out sick one day and then working another, but getting paid overtime for it, according to current contract terms. BART management wants to eliminate the policy of paying workers overtime when they haven’t put in more than 40 hours of work in a week.
Extra Board Train Operators
CBS again has the details on this sticking point, which both saps productivity and offers an opportunity for earning overtime without actually putting in more hours:
BART officials said they also would like to change the work rules for so-called “extra board” train operators who fill in for regular train operators who call in sick or who don’t come to work for other reasons, such as if they’re undergoing training.
Management officials said the work rules mandate that the extra train drivers can’t report to most BART stations but only to one of four maintenance yards in the system.
BART officials cited the example of an extra train operator who reports to the Hayward maintenance yard instead of to the Dublin station, which is the endpoint of one of the transit system’s routes.
The extra driver gets paid for traveling on BART to and from the Dublin station as well as two hours of “penalty time,” BART officials said.
They told reporters they want to change that rule because it is “grossly inefficient and is wasteful and unnecessary.”
Some of the oddest arguments have come over technology, though as noted earlier, it’s possible that the unions have already conceded these points. Two examples often mentioned in press reports are electronic paychecks — unions want the option of continuing to receive their checks and pay stubs in paper form, since not everybody has access to a computer, while management wants to transition to a direct deposit — and whether employees should continue to file reports by hand (as the union wanted), or by email (management’s desire).
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These are only some of the most prominent work rule disputes that have emerged in the press. Others include the way workplace grievances about harassment and discrimination are handled, how maintenance work is assigned, and to what extent seniority decides a worker’s task.
The two deaths over the weekend may have changed things. Up until now the public had been firmly on the side of management, perhaps emboldening them to stand their ground during the negotiations. But the unions used the deaths to argue that the work rules are necessary to maintain a safe work environment.
It’s not clear which work rules the unions thought were impediments to safety, and the details of the settlement have not been released. “This offer is more than we wanted to pay but it is a new path with our workers and it delivers the BART of the future,” BART General Manager Grace Crunican told the media last night. Whether they paid in money or work rules concessions remains to be seen.
We might also see an attempt to limit these sorts of strikes in the future. “This has got to be the last time that this happens,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said as the settlement was announced. His statement was vague, but if he was referring to grumblings among the public and some politicians that strikes by transit workers should be banned, he should look to New York – he’d find that the alternative to strikes is sometimes even worse.
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.