Jonathen Lyens, a rookie BART board candidate, was heard by multiple sources telling a room full of potential voters in San Francisco Sunday that he doesn’t believe public employees should have the right to strike.
While that’s not an uncommon view among some angry BART riders who felt inconvenienced by the 2013 BART worker strike, it is notable for a candidate — Lyens — who is endorsed by BART’s major unions, including SEIU 1021, ATU Local 1555 and AFSCME Local 3993.
Lyens addressed a room of about 40 potential voters at a “Back of the Ballot” election education party hosted by West Side politico Joel Engardio, who is also a San Francisco Examiner columnist. Candidates running in this November’s election for the BART Board of Directors spoke at the event, meant to educate voters about low-attention races, including Lyens, Melanie Nutter, and Janice Li, a staffer with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
“He said he felt public employees should not strike, and included himself in that because he works for The City,” said Sally Stephens, a West Side voter who is also a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
Stephens attended the event and said she has no favored candidate in the race, yet. But, she said, “I’m pretty pro-union.”
Lyens made the statement while speaking to the entire room, Stephens said.
Though Lyens has also run for District 1 supervisor, he has in the past been regarded as a long-shot candidte. This time around, however, he is perceived by many as a front-of-the-pack candidate, especially considering his backing by BART’s major unions. Lyens is running on a platform of getting “back to basics,” he told the Examiner, including ensuring elevators and escalators work and basic rail service needs are met, because disability issues are especially pertinent to him as a member of the diasability community. Lyens is blind. He also emphasized a need for labor harmony.
Labor relations have been tense at BART for years, leading to the 2013 strike that snarled Bay Area transit for days and saw agency management run trains with untrained operator trainees to circumvent the strike, leading to the deaths of two workers.
Lyens also faces a crucial San Francisco Democratic Party endorsement vote Wednesday evening.
When asked to confirm his statements, Lyens apologized, but neither confirmed nor directly denied he made the statements.
“It was a misspeak,” he said. And characterized his statements, “if I failed to articulate clearly,” as “things that came out of my mouth not in the way they were in my head.”
That said, he emphasized that he was on a picket line with AFSCME six months ago, and that as a child of two air traffic controllers he supports labor’s right to strike.
“What I’m telling you is I believe one thousand percent in the right of workers to strike,” he said.
But, Stephens said, that’s not what Lyens said Sunday.
“He definitely said he didn’t think public employees, including BART employees, including himself, should be able to strike,” she said. “I’m confident I heard him say that.”
Gabriel Haaland, a political coordinator with SEIU 1021, said he still has confidence in Lyens. “Our union interviewed him three different times” and “I don’t think he believes that,” he said.
Though Lyens may have made a gaffe, he was not the only candidate to make a major reversal in position after Engardio’s inaugural Back of the Ballot party. Li, a candidate who has served on the late Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation Task Force 2045, told the crowd she may not support BART replacing its fare gates for taller versions to curb fare evaders, which the San Francisco Chronicle reported may cost as much as $200 million.
After the event, she sent an email cementing her position in support of fare gates.
“I’m in support of replacing fare gates,” she wrote in the email. “It’s BART passengers that lose out the most when revenues are lost.”