BART approves contract, union threatens electoral challenges

The BART Board of Directors approved a modified contract with its two biggest labor unions on Jan. 2, an action that received faint praise and was followed up with implied threats from both sides, continuing one of the ugliest and most impactful Bay Area labor disputes in recent memory.

The four-year contract resolves a dispute over a paid family leave provision that BART officials say was mistakenly included in the contract that the unions negotiated and approved in November following two strikes and two workers being killed by a train that was being used to train possible replacement drivers on Oct. 19.

Recent negotiations yielded a contract with seven new provisions favorable to workers, including a $500 per employee bonus if ridership rises in the next six months and more pension and flex time options, in exchange for eliminating six weeks of paid leave for family emergencies.

The new contract was approved on a 8-1 vote, with new Director Zakhary Mallett the lone dissenter, continuing his staunchly anti-union stance. Newly elected President Joel Keller was quoted in a district statement put out afterward pledging to change the “process” to prevent future strikes.

“The Bay Area has been put through far too much and we owe it to our riders and the public to make the needed reforms to our contract negotiations process so mistakes are avoided in the future,” Keller said.

But from labor’s perspective, the problem wasn’t the “process,” but the actions taken by the Board of Directors; General Manager Grace Crunican; and Thomas Hock, the union-busting labor negotiator they hired for $400,000 — and the decision by BART to practice bargaining table brinksmanship backed up by a fatally flawed proposal to run limited replacement service to try to break the second strike.

A statement by SEIU Local 1021 Executive Director Pete Castelli put out after the vote began, “Today’s Board vote incrementally restores the faith that the riders and workers have lost in the Board of Directors, but it’s not enough to fix the damage they’ve caused to our communities.”

It goes on the blame the district for the strikes and closes with a vague threat to target the four directors who are up for election this year: Keller, James Fang, Thomas Blalock, and Robert Raburn (whose reelection launch party last month was disrupted by union members).

“Today BART is less safe and less reliable because of the Directors’ reckless leadership,” Castelli said. “Something has to change in order for all of us to regain our confidence in BART, and it starts with having BART Directors who are committed to strengthening the transportation system we all rely on and who prioritize its workers’ and riders’ safety. We look forward to the opportunity to work with our communities and to elect Directors who are committed to improving service and safety to all who depend on BART.”

Asked whether the union was indeed threatening to get involved in those four elections this year, spokesperson Cecille Isidro told the Guardian, “You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what we’re trying to project.”

Local 1021 Political Director Chris Daly took the threat a step further, singling out Mallett as by far the most caustic and anti-union director, saying the union is currently considering launching a recall campaign against Mallett, although that could be complicated by the fact that he represents pieces of three counties: San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa.

“He is so out-of-touch with the region. When he was elected, people didn’t know what they were getting,” Daly said, noting that voters elected Mallett over longtime incumbent Lynette Sweet in 2012 mostly out of opposition to her and not support for him. The Bay Guardian and others who endorsed Mallett have been critical of Mallett’s erratic actions since then, which included trying to raise fares within San Francisco without required social equity studies before becoming the most dogmatic critic of BART’s employee unions.

Daly was also particularly critical of Keller, who he accused of using today’s vote “to roll out his reelection campaign” with an anti-worker tenor. Mallett didn’t respond to Guardian requests for comment, but Keller told us he takes the union’s threat seriously.

“They’ll probably be successful,” Keller said of the impact that a serious union-backed challenge would have on his race. “If I lose my seat over this, I lose my seat.”

And by “this,” Keller means the likelihood that he’ll push for prohibiting BART employees from going on strike, which he said is already the case with the country’s four largest systems — Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington DC — which have deemed transit an essential service.

“Large transit agencies do not allow their employees to strike,” Keller said, noting that the San Francisco City Charter also bans transit strikes, something he pointed out Daly didn’t alter during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors.

And Keller said he’s willing to risk his seat to make that change: “I feel my responsibility is to use my remaining time to break this dysfunctional labor process.”

Daly cited a litany of grievances that could be corrected by new blood on the board. “The experience of the last 8-10 months elevates the importance of these BART Board races,” Daly told us. “They spent about $1 million to basically malign their workers and improve their negotiating position on the contract.”

SEIU Local 1021 members are slated to vote on the latest BART contract on Jan. 13.