BART board approves labor contract, minus the district’s “mistake” UPDATED

The BART Board of Directors has voted 8-1, with conservative young Director Zakhary Mallett in dissent, to approve a hard-won contract with its unions, after removing Section 4.8, the paid family leave section that the district says was inserted by mistake. The motion also directed management to negotiate a settlement over that issue with its unions, which have already approved the contracts and now must decide whether they are willing to do so again without that provision or whether the possibility of another BART strikes is once again looming.

Shortly after the meeting, SEIU Local 1021 Executive Director Pete Castelli issued the statement saying, “We’re disappointed that the BART Board of Directors had decided not to fulfill their commitment to the workers and the riders by approving contracts without the provision on family medical leave. The unions have voted on and ratified these contracts in their entirety.”

He accused the district of over-inflating the cost estimates of the family leave provision and said the unions were willing to discuss it, but the district instead chose “to prolong the process and hold the fate of the riders, the workers, and the Bay Area in the balance.”

“Right now we are considering all options, meeting with workers who have ratified this contract, and working to find a way to reach a resolution to BART management’s alleged mistake in the agreement it made with its workers,” he said.

After meeting in closed session for about two hours this morning, the BART board opened the meeting up around 11:45am to discuss and vote on the contract. Vice President Joel Keller opened with a motion to remove Section 4.8 from the contract, approve the rest, and direct management to negotiate with the unions.

Mallett, the 25-year-old newbie who lives in unincorporated West Contra Costa County but whose Dist. 7 includes part of San Francisco, spoke first: “Even before this hiccup, I was not in the position to support this contract. I find it too costly.”

But he was the only one to take that stance, with the rest of the directors calling the underlying contract a fair compromise, even if all said they couldn’t support the paid family leave provision that would add anywhere between $4 million and $44 million to a contract that was already going to cost the district an additional $67 million.

Director Gail Murray even chided Mallett’s certitude given his age and inexperience, noting that the union had given up raises for years when BART had budget deficits, and now that the district is running surpluses, it’s reasonable to give workers raises that amount to about 2 percent per year for four years, particularly given the union also gave on their benefit packages.

“Our employees kept the system going…They’re the reason why we keep 40-year-old cars still running,” Murray said, later adding, “To say this contract is not a good contract is wrong.”

The rest of the board agreed, even why acknowledging it is more than they hoped to pay given the district capital needs and aggressive expansion plans.

“We’re probably paying more for this than we anticipated we would pay, and labor is probably going up more than they want to, but that’s the nature of collective bargaining,” Keller said, who also began what turned into a chorus of criticism for how district negotiators signed off on a provision the board never agreed to.

“We ended on a sloppy note and that’s regretable,” Keller said, pledging that if he’s elected president next month — an ascension that is customary for the vice president — he plans to lauch a full investigation into what happened.

“I’m pained that we put ourselves in such adversarial positions with each other and that we lost the lives of two employees,” Director John McPartland said of the protracted labor negotiations and the fatalities that occurred while the unions were on strike Oct. 19. He called the contract “more than fair and equitible.”

Director James Fang, who represents western San Francisco, sounded the strongest criticisms of BART management and negotiators. “Yes, it was a mistake, but nobody has come forward and said ‘there was a mistake and I’m responsible,” Fang said, later adding, “The ones who signed this must be held to account.”

Fang then went further, albeit without specifics, when he said, “Every bit of management advice we’ve received has not worked out to the district’s best interests.” Given the looming investigations by the California Legislature and National Transportation Safety Board of BART culpability in the Oct. 19 deaths — the result of management preparing to break the strike by training replacement drivers and contesting longstanding demands by state regulators to make safety improvements that likely would have prevented the tragedy — Fang’s comment could ultimately prove to be a huge understatement.

Director Robert Raburn echoed Fang’s calls for accountability: “I’m still not clear on how that [contract provision] arrived and it hasn’t been accounted for by anyone at the district who said ‘I am responsible.’”

But he also said that the provision was clearly an error and not something arrived at through the negotiations: “Both parties agreed on a $67 million package and we should keep that intact because it’s fair.”

Reached by the Guardian this afternoon while union leadership was conferring to plan next steps, SEIU Local 1021 Political Director Chris Daly told us, “We are about as up in the air as we’ll ever been.”

As a first step, he said the unions are consulting with their attorneys on the legality of today’s vote. “We think the action might be an unfair labor practice and illegal under labor law,” Daly said.

He also called it “unlikely” that union leadership would simply submit the board-revised contract to an up-or-down vote by union membership, saying that he doesn’t think it would be approved.

And Daly echoed the concerns expressed by several BART directors about how this mistake happened and why nobody has taken responsibility or been held accountable: “If I were on that board, I’d have the general manager’s head, there’s no two ways about it.”  

UPDATE 11/22: Today BART’s largest unions, SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555, issued the following joint statement on the BART Board’s recent vote regarding whether to ratify the labor contracts:

“We consider the Board’s actions to be unprecedented and illegitimate, and we’re considering our next steps, including possible legal action.

“The BART Board of Directors has disregarded the vote of more than two thousand BART workers and has chosen to subvert the collective bargaining process, and we take their actions seriously.”