Oct. 13--I love BART.
It whisks me to work and back daily, and lets me leave the car at home if I'm downtown shopping, going to the movies, or heading for the East Bay. I've found the drivers considerate, reminding me over the intercom of my upcoming stop while I'm lost in iPhone world and keeping me posted on the whys and wherefores of a sudden halt in the middle of a tunnel.
It's a pretty great system (would have been greater had idiots like Marin County signed on at the planning stage), and for those who keep the trains running and maintained for more than 400,000 riders daily, we owe a debt of gratitude.
But you wouldn't think so from the obloquy raining down on their heads. Per the opinion polls, BART workers are about as popular as the Republicans in Washington. Check out the comments on SFGate.com. "Off with their heads" would be an apt summary.
Set aside the abuse -- only too common on the Internet but unforgivable nevertheless -- there is an underlying thread to many of the comments. "You think you're losing out on pay and benefits, what about the rest of us?" it goes. "And if you go on strike, you'll make our lives worse."
And therein lies a fundamental disconnect.
BART workers believe -- and they're right -- that they've given plenty, sucking it up through BART's tough times. Now, with a fat surplus, management is offering them the same or less (depending on who's counting). They have families, financial commitments, righteous expectations that they'd get some reward. And by the way, the cost of living hereabouts isn't going down, in case you haven't noticed.
Unfortunately, they're colliding with a new reality. Much of what they are used to -- and as other workers, public and private have already learned -- is no longer sustainable. That's especially true for benefits, which are at the root of the BART (and AC Transit) disputes.
"When I was involved in BART negotiations in the '90s, health care and pension costs were relatively minor factors," recalls former BART Director Michael Bernick. "In the past decade, they've been skyrocketing."
To believe -- as many union workers at BART and AC Transit appear to -- that they shouldn't have to contribute much if anything to their health and pensions benefits has become illusory. And to demand a 20 percent increase in pay to cover BART unions' agreeing to contribute something to their pension plan and a little more to their health plan seems equally quixotic in this day and age.
"The economy is so different from the pre-Great Recession period," said Bernick, former director of the state Employment Development Department who blogs on California politics and business at Fox&Hounds. "Even in the Bay Area, which is much better off than the state and the rest of the nation, there's heightened competition for almost any job, pressures to reduce wages, and the replacing of full-time workers with part-timers."
That's certainly true at BART, where job applicants far outnumber job openings -- 20,473 to 177, at last count.
Yes, but the same pressures don't seem to be on management, the unions argue, again with some justification. At $323,000 a year for BART's general manager, and $200,000 a year for deputy managers, they are among the highest-paid transit executives in the nation. Add in the golden parachutes for departing executives, like the $1 million General Manager Dorothy Dugger received when she resigned under fire in 2011.
But at $30 an hour plus generous benefits, BART workers are also among the highest paid of their peers, and their benefits look golden to others who are paying much more for health insurance and pensions (at companies that still have them).
Comparisons are rarely apples to apples -- too many extraneous factors, like cost of living -- but here's one closer to home. Before the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont closed in 2010, United Automobile Workers there were making $30 an hour, plus generous benefits. The few who have been taken on by Tesla, which occupies part of Nummi's old plant, are making approximately $20 an hour, with some benefits. That's about the same as the average made by the other Nummi workers who have found jobs since the shutdown -- and by autoworkers at GM, Ford and Chrysler.
None of this may be fair. Are BART workers right to resent that their incomes are stagnant when the American Dream suggested they would be forever onward and upward? Sure, and so are the tens of millions of other decent, productive, essential American workers who are suffering the same fate.
It could be worse
On the other hand, earning between $65,000 and $75,000 a year (depending on who's calculating), plus benefits much more generous than most, one is tempted to say, with respect: Be grateful for whatever you get.
This is the new economy.