BART protests

Unions suing BART board over contract disagreement today, no strike yet


Two of BART’s largest unions will announce a lawsuit against the BART board of directors today on the steps of the Alameda County Superior Court at 11am, which they plan to file shortly before the press conference.

The suit will directly challenge the board’s Nov. 21 decision to ratify a contract between the unions and BART management without a hotly contested provision on family leave.

In their announcement of the suit, SEIU Local 1021 and ATU Local 1555 allege the board made “illegitimate and unprecedented actions” in ratifying the contract while removing a section on family leave, which was signed off on by BART management in July. Under the provision, workers who go on leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act would be paid for six of the 12 weeks the law allows them to take unpaid. 

Management has since called signing off on family leave a “mistake,” and the board asked all sides to ratify a contract without the provision, hence the lawsuit.

But would a lawsuit mean a new strike?

“That’s what everybody is asking,” SEIU Local 1021 spokesperson Cecille Isidro told the Guardian. “The unions aren’t ruling out any options, but no strike is being called or scheduled at this time.”

BART spokesperson Luna Salaver told the Guardian last month that “it was a mistake that a provision rejected twice by BART management ended up in the stack of approved documents.” She noted that it was caught as the district prepared to give the contract final approval on Nov. 21, though it was already signed by the two unions.

“We were never confused as to the status of the Family and Medical Leave Act agreement,” Local 1021 Political Director Chris Daly told the Guardian, in our earlier coverage, which you can read here.

Isidro said more details on the lawsuit would be available at the press conference at 11am. 

ATU Local president Antoinette Bryant responds to family leave “mistake” at a press conference.

From the mouths of BART workers; cleaning the dreaded escalators, skirting death


A reprieve in BART negotiations has given the Bay Area time to breathe before the next possible strike, but a lot of public concerns and animosity toward BART still remains. So the Guardian decided to take a look at BART workers themselves (we found them through their union) and ask, “How would your life change if the unions adopted BART management’s offers on safety, pensions, wages and health care?”

Note: The audio interviews are summarized in this post, but give them a listen to get a fuller picture of the impact of labor negotiations on worker’s lives.

First we met Robert Earl Bright, a 47-year-old transit vehicle mechanic at the Hayward yards, where he’s been for three years. BART trains seem tame compared to the machines he used to work with, as he started out as an Air Force mechanic working on cargo planes.

It’s that experience he draws from when he said BART’s policies are becoming increasingly dangerous.

Bright is tall but soft-spoken, and while we sat at a bench in a courtyard at Lake Merrit BART station, he talked about the shortcuts BART has taken lately, and how overtime and consolidation are bad practices for everyone involved.

There used to be specific workers called Power & Way controllers who looked out for workers on the train tracks and made sure they were safe, he said, but those responsibilities were consolidated into a separate train controller position. Since then, Bright saw the death of a colleague, a mechanic who switched from a graveyard shift to a day shift and was hit by an oncoming train.

Only after the death did BART take steps to ensure parts of the track where there was less clearance safe from trains were marked, he said.

“The problem is BART seems to wait until someone gets killed until they want to do something about it,” he said.

Bright is a new grandfather. He helps support his daughter and her two toddlers, and he supports his older brother who suffers from dementia. Bright has a home that his fiance bought, but is “upside-down,” as he says, because of a predatory loan.

He’s one of the lucky ones though, as the military pays for his health care, and the negotiations don’t impact him as far as that goes. But he does worry about his pension, and thinks he may have to cut back on supporting his elderly brother and his grandchildren. Even with those cutbacks in his life, he’ll likely have to look for a part time job as a car mechanic, he said.

While contemplating that future, his four-hour daily commute, and the new expectations BART asked of his crew to repair more cars in less time, he started to develop an ulcer.

“They’re short on people, and it’s cheaper for the managers to pay for overtime than to pay for another person,” he said. The stress pressed on him and one day at work he grew dizzy and collapsed, and that’s when he started to be a little more zen about what BART asked of him. But he still said it’s not right.

“Our shop is a mod [modification] shop, but we got tasked with doing preventive maintenance. Our shop isn’t set up for that,” he said. And that means workers who aren’t trained for that particular job are pushed to fix up cars when normally they’re doing an entirely different job. That can be dangerous, he said.

“We have to make sure that those trains not only run, we also have to make sure they’re safe,” Bright said. “Something could happen, like a panel popping off. It touches the third rail, it could catch on fire. If we could miss something… it could cause a derailment.”

As far as Bright goes, he said he’s seeing more people working over time at the request of managers, working longer hours that could lead to unsafe conditions — not just for the mechanics, but for the people who ride BART every day.

Phyllis Alexander, a BART systems service worker, cleans up in the Mission. Photo courtesy of Mark Mosher, SEIU 1021

Phyllis Alexander

Phyllis Alexander has been with BART for 16 years in systems service, which she said basically means, “cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”

“Wherever they need me, that’s what I do,” she said.

Alexander often starts her days cleaning the elevators and escalators at Powell Street Station, and if you’ve been reading the news lately, you know what that means.

She doesn’t mince words about it: “I clean the urine and the feces out of the elevators and make sure it’s clean and smelling good for the patrons.”

But Alexander doesn’t hold it against the homeless. When she first started at BART, she had little contact with them. But over the years, she’s made good friends out of some of the homeless at Powell and 16th St. stations, and the latter is where she sat and told her story.

“As the years passed it got worse. People living in their cars on the streets, in their doorways. I’ve met a lot of wonderful homeless people, wonderful people,” she said. And as the years went by, it got harder for the cleaning crew, too. She’s one of two systems service folk who take care of Powell Street Station at any one time.

“Sometimes it can be tough, it can get hectic, but we get it done. It’s hecka huge, and there’s only two of us, but we have to do the best we can do.”

But she keeps with it for herself and her daughter.

Her daughter just finished medical school and is still living with her. Alexander makes about $52,000 a year, she said, and couldn’t figure out major cuts she’d make in her lifestyle to make room for paying more into her pension or health care.

“It would hurt me,” she said. She said that though people in the Bay Area demonize BART workers for wanting a raise, she feels it’s simply been too long since they’ve had one.

“I think I haven’t gotten a raise in two contracts. Its been like seven or eight years,” she said.

Devoutly religious, ultimately she keeps faith that the workers will prevail in negotiations.

“(God) is going to bring this through … this thing with management, it’s going to be all right,” she said.

BART’s failed press mainpulation


Another nice scoop by Zusha Elinson at the Bay Citizen: He’s got emails showing how BART tried to set up a fake counter-protest and press conference to skew media coverage toward how protests were inconveniencing riders.

The brainchild of Linton Johnson, BART’s PR chief (and the man who brought you the cell-phone shutoff), the plans included a pre-written script and a couple of private SUVs with drivers to take the BART loyalists to the press conference.

You can’t make this shit up.

BART’s attempts to avoid protests and manipulate the press appear to exceed its interest in reforming police practices. I wonder, sometimes, if the BART Board is even paying attention.

Powell station shut down by BART protest

A Sept. 8 protest called to test the limits of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency’s policies on freedom of speech inside BART stations ended in a cluster of protesters and journalists being coralled by nightstick-wielding BART officers, detained, and in some cases, arrested. The station was shut down at around 6 p.m. when police surrounded a group of demonstrators who had marched around the unpaid area of the transit station, as well as a group of media who were following them with cameras and voice recorders.

It was unclear at press time just how many arrests were made, but it is clear that things did not go as planned from the perspective of either the protesters or the transit agency. As the demonstration got underway, one of the No Justice No BART protest organizers, Christopher Cantor, told reporters, “We are here to test free speech limitations at BART, but more importantly, we’re here to say we don’t trust BART, we don’t trust BART to protect us, we don’t trust BART to interpret the constitution.” He also said that none of them were there to get arrested.

Before the banners and bullhorns came out, BART spokesperson Jim Allison told the Guardian that if BART police deemed a gathering inside the unpaid area of the station to be dangerous, “we would ask people to disperse.” If they didn’t disperse, “we would declare an unlawful assembly.” Allison said protesters were free to exercise their first amendment rights to protest inside the areas of the station that don’t require a ticket to enter. He said people could do that as long as they were not “interrupting or interfering” with regular service. When the Guardian caught up with Allison after the protest by phone to find out why his statements about the dispersal order were contradicted by police activity, he refused to answer our questions, directing us instead to watch a press conference on the BART website.

“I’m going off duty,” he said after calling the Guardian in response to a page, after being asked several times why BART police had not issued a dispersal order before surrounding people and arresting them. “I simply cannot devote the rest of my night to answering your questions.”

Here’s what Cantor said just before the march around the station got underway:

Before police closed in, the protest featured some 60 protesters chanting things like, “How can they protect and serve us? The BART police just make me nervous.” One banner, from a group called Feminists Against Cops, read, “Disarm BART, Arm Feminists.”

Things heated up when the protest got closer to the fare gates, at which point police may have determined that protesters were interfering with service. At one point, police tackled a masked demonstrator to the ground. However, when people were detained, they were not standing directly in front of the fare gates.

Police did not make any public statements indicating that the situation had been deemed unlawful before surrounding the group of detainees, nor did they issue a dispersal order. We were told that we were not free to leave.

While I was detained along with Luke Thomas, a reporter from the popular political Fog City Journal, and freelance reporter Josh Wolf, an officer told us that we were being detained on suspected violation of California Penal Code 369-i, which prohibits interfering with the operations of a railroad.

Thomas phoned Matt Gonzalez, former president of the Board of Supervisors and now a chief attorney with the Public Defender’s office, to ask about that law. Gonzalez looked it up and told him that there was an exception to that law which “does not prohibit picketing in the adjacent area of any property” belonging to a railroad. So it would seem that the protesters, along with more than a dozen journalists, were being unlawfully detained. When we put this question to one of the officers who stood holding a nightstick and blocking us in, he refused to address the issue directly, repeating that we weren’t free to leave.

Members of the press with San Francisco Police Department issued credentials were made to line up and present their press passes to San Francisco police officers, who had been called in to assist. The police officers took away media’s press passes, saying it was SFPD property and could be retrieved later — which meant that if journalists had opted to stay and cover any further police activity, we would have had no way of presenting credentials to avoid arrest. We were issued Certificates of Release and ushered outside of the station, where it was impossible to see what was happening, and therefore, impossible to do our jobs as reporters.

Just outside, San Francisco State lecturer Justin Beck was very concerned that several of his journalism students, whom he’d sent on assignment to cover the protest, were being detained. They did not have SFPD issued press passes and at that time were not being allowed to exit the station.




BART Police arrest journalists and protesters


BART Police are cracking down hard on a peaceful protest in the Powell Street station, detaining a group of 30 to 40 people that includes almost a dozen journalists, including Guardian reporter Rebecca Bowe, who just called in with a report on the ongoing situation. (For Rebecca Bowe’s account of the BART protest and arrests, with video footage, click here.)

The scene is chaotic and details are unclear at this point, but we’ll report more on this blog post as the situation unfolds. This protest stems from shootings by BART Police, the transit agency’s ban on political speech on train platforms, and its decision last month to cut cell phone service in an effort to scuttle a police accountability protest that never materialized. Today’s protest, organized by the group Anonymous, stated an intention to exercise free speech rights without disrupting BART service.

But BART officials have apparently decided to deal harshly with the protesters and Bowe reports that the group has been detained for violation of Penal Code Section 369i, which makes it a crime to disrupt rail service, outlawing activities that “would interfere with, interrupt, or hinder the safe and efficient operation of any locomotive, railway car, or train.”

Yet an attorney working with the protesters notes that mere speech doesn’t hinder operations, noting that section C of that code section specifically “does not prohibit picketing in the immediately adjacent area of the property of any railroad or rail transit related property or any lawful activity by which the public is informed of the existence of an alleged labor dispute.”

While this protest may not involve a labor dispute, it does seem that the ongoing protests against BART are evolving into a test of the agency’s claims of the authority to ban all protest and political speech on its train platforms.

More to come…

UPDATE AT 6:07 PM: The professional journalists in the group have been released after being detained for about 30 minutes, and they’ve been shepherded into an area where they can no longer see the group of arrestees. But a group of three to five San Francisco State University journalism students who don’t have press credentials remain in custody, despite repeated appeals to the police by their faculty advisor Justin Beck.

BART protests continue (VIDEO)


Protesters returned to downtown San Francisco train stations on August 29, vowing to keep up their schedule of Monday evening rush hour protests until the  BART police are disarmed and retrained, or disbanded. This time, howevef, stations remained open and trains ran on schedule in a protest where both BART police and demonstrators took pains to reach out to commuters angered by recent train service disruptions.

A crowd of 200 people gathered outside of Civic Center station, the location of the July 3 fatal shooting of a 45 year old Charles Hill by BART police.

Hill’s physician, Dr. Rupa Marya, joined the protest a day after releasing an open letter on the shooing calling for BART police to re-examine its use of force policies and training.

“Charles was a member of the invisible class of people in SF–mentally ill, homeless and not reliably connected to the help he needed,” read Marya’s letter. “We often have to deal with agitated–sometimes even violent–patients in the hospital. Through teamwork, tools and training, we have not had to fatally wound our patients in order to subdue them.”

The protest made its way down Market Street entering each station briefly but remaining outside the fare gates. BART police have made it clear recently that their policies only allow freedom of expression outside the paid areas of the station. Previous protests on the train platforms have lead to station closures and train delays – delays that protesters and police have accused each other of causing.

Video taken by Josh Wolf, which includes protesters and counterprotesters, including a debate between Dr. Marya and a supporter of the cops.

As the protesters moved down the Market Street corridor they were shadowed by a small army of BART and San Francisco Police Department officers intent on preventing further station closures.

At Montgomery station Deputy BART Police Chief Daniel Hartwig told the Guardian, “Protesters appear to be following BART’s free speech rules and regulations and at this point we are happy they are. We support their right to protest.”

Behind him the station lobby filled protesters chanting, “How can they protect and serve us? BART police just make us nervous.”

At Embarcadero station an organizer with No Justice No BART challenged BART’s free speech rules.

“Right here you can say what you want. The moment you enter that fare gate you can’t say what you want,” he announced over a megaphone before crossing through the fair gates under heavy police presence.

After speaking out briefly in the paid area of the station, he exited of his own accord and was promptly arrested by BART police along with another protester in a Guy Fawkes mask who also had been using a megaphone.

Muni, which shares several downtown train stations with BART, has shifted in recent years away from police patrols to a “community ambassador” program, largely removing armed SFPD officers from those train and bus lines in favor of unarmed fare enforcement personal. The program has been praised from all sides as an appropriate balance of community safety, and fare enforcement on public transportation.

Robin, a young San Francisco native who said it was her first time participating in the police misconduct protests, characterized the gathering as a success. When asked if she found the presence of so many police intimidating she said “It was meant to be intimidating. That they would bring everyone out to police a small protest shows they fell they have something to be ashamed of.”

While the protesters focused on BART’s use of lethal force, civil liberties groups filed a petition Monday with the Federal Communications Commission, as the national fallout continues over BART’s decision to cut cellphone service to thwart a protest that never developed on August 11.

The coalition including Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for Media Justice, and Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that regardless of First Amendment augments for or against the disruption of cell service in the paid areas of BART’s stations, BART exceeded its authority under federal law. The complaint notes that the Communications Act, which governs cell phone service providers, clearly states the no carrier shall discontinue service without authorization from the FCC.

“It has been settled law for decades that law enforcement agencies have no authority to order discontinuation of phone service on mere suspicion of illegal activity without due process,” the complaint states.

The coalition urged the FCC to address the issue immediately in light of BART’s statements attempting to justify the cell service disruption, and the risk that other government agency may consider similar policies if the FCC does not assert its authority in the matter.

BART’s board of directors held an emergency meeting (Wed/25) to begin crafting a policy outlining to what future instances could lead further shutoffs.

BART has staff defended its disruption of service that took place August 11, saying their intent was to protect public safety.

Even BART must honor free speech rights


Given the recent battles between BART and both the physical and online protesters organized by the group Anonymous, it’s no surprise that the live video feed of this morning’s (Wed/24) BART Board of Directors meeting is down due to “technical difficulties.” But we’ll try to follow-up later with what happened during the special meeting focused on BART’s decision to shut down cell service in an effort to thwart a threatened Aug. 11 protest against the latest fatal shooting by BART police.

In the meantime, we have an interesting letter sent this week to the agency by the American Civil Liberties Union, which cites relevant caselaw and makes it clear that BART exceeded its legal authority in shutting down the system. Unfortunately, BART’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge its mistake has spawned continuing protests that are snarling commutes and – given the trigger-happy nature of some BART cops – unnecessarily creating dangerous situations for everyone.

“The people of our state have the right to speak freely as Americans and as Californians. Our supreme court has long held that cutting off telephone service can infringe upon the right guaranteed by the First Amendment, reasoning that because ‘the right of free speech and press are worthless without effective means of expression, the guarantee extends both to the content of the communication and the means for its dissemination.’ Our state constitution is even more protective of free expression than is the First Amendment,” writes staff attorney Michael T. Risher, citing the 1966 Sokol v. Public Utilities Commission case, among others.

The standard set by the Supreme Court for when speech or networks may be cut off is when it creates “a clear and present danger of imminent violence,” which he argues simply wasn’t the case with a protest that never even materialized. And he notes that the courts take an even more dim view of prior restraint, or the regulation of speech before it even occurs.

“BART cannot properly prevent protestors or other cell-phone users from speaking with one another on the telephone in the first place. Our courts have held that even private telephone carriers, whose actions are not constrained by the First Amendment, cannot shut off service simply because they believe that their customers may be using their services to facilitate crime,” he wrote, citing the 1942 ruling in People v. Brophy. “BART, which is bound to follow both the First Amendment and the California Constitution’s Liberty of Speech clause, must not do so either.”

Why doesn’t BART just apologize?


It’s pretty clear that people are still mad at BART for cutting off cell phone service — and that the agency is doing a miserable job of responding. The latest protest featured BART cops arresting people for nothing more than speaking out in the station, which leaves the train system in the horrible position of attacking First Amendment rights. And the protests are likely to continue, making life difficult for commuters and discouraging people from taking BART.

And it’s all so pointless.

All the anonymous protesters want is for BART to apologize and promise not to cut off cell phone service again. That seems like a really easy solution. Cutting off service was a bad idea in the first place; why not admit it, enact a policy against future disruptions and call it a day? How hard can that be? What level of arrogance is required to ignore a simple way of resolving an increasingly intractable conflict?

The BART directors, never a blue-ribbon bunch, need to get their collective act together. Because this is really stupid.

BART arrests protesters for speaking out

Faced with yet another protest over BART’s disruption of cell phone service on August 11 to preemptively disrupt a protest, and with lingering anger over the BART police shooting of Charles Hill on the Civic Center station platform on July 3, BART police stifled vocalizations of dissent with immediate arrests during an Aug. 22 protest on the Civic Center Station platform.

“Free speech is the best kind of speech,” said one protester on the Civic Center BART platform as the second protest called by the international hacker group Anonymous in as many weeks challenged the BART system at rush hour.

As a few protesters began to gather, surrounded by dozens of riot police and media, a uniformed BART police officer told a young African American man he would be arrested if he raised his voice. Chanting began in response among the small pack of protesters, and the man was promptly arrested by BART police.

As he was being led off the platform by police, a woman who stood in the center of the platform began verbally engaging a BART officer, saying, “BART police need to be reformed. Make BART Safe. Make BART safe.” She was apparently arrested for nothing more then her words. Deputy BART Police Chief Daniel Hartwig said he could not provide any information about what the arrestees would be charged with.

Video by Shawn Gaynor

Shortly after, BART police declared the small gathering an illegal assembly. Riot police surrounded some 40 protesters for arrest as media was ejected from the station.

Civic Center station and Powell Station were both shuttered, blocking many transit passengers from their evening commute.

What started as a cell phone disruption has apparently escalated into BART arresting anyone expressing an unfavorable opinion of BART.

When asked if the arrested represented a new BART police policy for protests, Hartwig told the Guardian BART’s policy remains the same. “This environment has to remain safe, and if that safety is jeopardized in any way, we will make arrests,” he said. “We have a responsibility to maintain a safe station.”

Protesters said it was appropriate to protest on the Civic Center platform because it is the location of the July 11 shooting of Hill by BART police.

Earlier in the day, the National Lawyer’s Guild issued a statement calling on BART to respect passengers’ and community members’ civil liberties during the Aug. 22 demonstration.

“First and foremost, the BART Police should provide transparency regarding the killing of Charles Hill and should stop shooting people, especially unarmed and incapacitated individuals,” the NLG statement read. “Second, BART should apologize for its disruption of cell service on August 11th and not repeat this unconstitutional action. Finally, BART should recognize passengers’ right to freedom of speech on platforms and in trains.”

Calls to the BART for the names of the arrestees and number of arrests had not yet been returned by press time.

Protest the BART police — in Sacramento


By Tim Redmond

The protests over the latest BART police killing continue, with one activist chased out of a BART Board meeting today after trying to throw red paint on General Manager Dorothy Dugger.

I’m not endorsing paint-throwing (though pies are always fun), but it’s clear that the BART protests need to continue, because the BART Board members simply will not accept adequate police oversight unless it’s forced on them.

And that’s what Assembly Member Tom Ammiano is trying to do. His bill to require civilian oversight for the BART Police will be heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee April 14, 9 am, in the state Capitol Room 126. There needs to be a strong showing of support.

Assmbly member Fiona Ma is on that committee, and is weak on this issue. Call her office before the hearing ((916) 319-2012) and let her know you support the measure.

The BART cops will try to derail this. The BART Board is not on board. This will be up to the rest of us; let’s give Ammiano and civilian oversight a show of support.