Asisi Lazzaarius sits on the broken Powell BART station escalators where he has lived for two months Thursday, April 14, 2016. The SFMTA will partner with homeless outreach organizations in the city to provide resources to those who sleep in the underground BART and Muni stations. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

BART reaches agreements with three major unions six months ahead of deadline

Early contract deals intended to give the agency more stability, certainty during financial crisis

The BART Board of Directors approved new three-year labor contracts with its three largest unions Thursday as the transit agency continues to seek firm financial footing, increase ridership and avoid cuts to staff or service amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ratifying the new collective bargaining agreements more than six months ahead of their expiration next June reduces the uncertainty of labor negotiations, provides more financial stability and, potentially, reduces the likelihood or scale of future layoffs, officials said.

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3993 agreed to forego wage increases during the first fiscal year of the three-year contract term, beginning July 1, 2021.

For the following two years, members will receive “modest” wage increases of 2 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively, conditional upon the average weekday ridership on BART reaching 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Doing this ties the fate of every BART stakeholder together in fighting for the success of the agency, although it does require significant sacrifice on the part of many of the workers.

“To those workers who are tuned in, I once again want to say, I see you, and I am so grateful for what you do, and I am proud to vote ‘yes,’” Board member Janice Li said.

John Arantes, president of SEIU 1021, testified during public comment to the importance of the contract in helping the Bay Area bounce back from the pandemic and keep workers on the payroll ready to ramp up service when the time is right.

“BART is the backbone of the Bay Area and essential to its immediate economic recovery,” he said “That is what this contract extension does, it brings three years of stability to BART, its workers and its patrons.”

The agreement also avoids notoriously prickly negotiations between agency leadership and the nearly 3,300 train operators, maintenance professionals, mechanics, station agents and other essential workers represented by the three unions.

Last time the two parties reached an impasse, BART workers went on strike, resulting in severe delays and crowded transit across the region. Two workers were also killed when they were hit by a train being operated by a trainee operator.

“It’s a tragedy that two people had to die because we were trying to operate service without skilled personnel. That is nothing that I’m interested in.” Board member Bevan Dufty reflected. “Let me be really clear,I think that this is a really important day for this agency […]”

This time, negotiations, which Board President Lateefah Simon called “unprecedented,” started back in May with a focus on how to chart a path forward giving the agency more flexibility to endure the crisis.

“There is much more to do,” she said. “Our hands are not tied. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.”

Board members were quick to level with the public that these agreements do not preclude the district from considering service cuts or layoffs if not enough people accept the retirement incentives package agreed to last month or if ridership returns more slowly than anticipated.

However, the new contracts do include specific language that allows for mutual agreement between parties to reopen negotiations and discuss ways to cut costs and avoid the need for workforce reduction.

Other contract terms include a provision to include a Staffing Agent to the Antioch Station, the dissolution of a bargaining unit specific to the East Contra County BART extension and more flexibility for staff around setting compressed train operator schedules, among other things.

Board members Debora Allen and Liz Ames, who did not vote in favor of the agreements, as well as some members of the public said they wanted to delay ratification until more was known about the budget realities for the next three years, and they raised skepticism about the timing and fiscal prudence of the negotiations.

Those concerns aside, the agreements passed 7-2.

The three-year contract kicks in on July 1, 2021 and runs through June 30, 2024. All three of the unions ratified the terms in November before they came before the board Thursday.

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