Judge orders no BART strike for 60 days; negotiations continue

BART and the transit agency's two biggest unions will continue contract negotiations today, just hours after a judge ordered a cooling off period that prevents workers from striking for the next 60 days.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow said this morning at a special hearing that a work stoppage by BART employees would substantially disrupt public transportation and threaten the safety and welfare of Bay Area residents.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday filed a petition requesting the court order, which prevents a strike and also prevents the transit district from locking out its workers any time before midnight on Oct. 10.

Representatives for BART and its unions Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 voiced no objection to the court order, which Karnow said he would sign by the end of the day.

Workers had threatened to strike on Monday over key issues, which continue to be wages and employees' contributions for their health and pension benefits.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement praising Brown for taking action to avoid another strike, about a month after BART employees walked off the job during the first week of July and crippled Bay Area commutes for four days.

“I applaud Gov. Brown for taking the steps necessary so that Bay Area residents will not endure another unbearable BART strike, including ordering a court-approved 60-day cooling off period,” Lee said.

“A BART strike is not just an inconvenience anymore, but will cause undue hardship for many,” he said.

A spokesman for SEIU Local 1021, which represents 1,430 mechanics, said union representatives are preparing to return to the negotiating table later today and reviewing the latest deal proposed by BART management late Saturday night.

“We need to go through it,” spokesman Des Patten said. “We've got a lot of work to do.”

Patten said that even though union representatives made no objection to the cooling off period at this morning's hearing, the delay has the potential to slow down negotiations.

“It delays things for us,” Patten said. “Unfortunately, it takes some of the pressure off to get things done.”

Contract negotiations between the two parties were scheduled to continue today at Caltrans headquarters in Oakland at around 1 p.m., BART spokesman Rick Rice said.

If no agreement is reached before the end of the 60-day cooling off period, workers will then have the right to strike at any time.

Pols mostly stay on sidelines as supporters in labor fight on

Labor’s power in the U.S. is on the decline — less than 12 percent of workers nationwide are organized — but unions still wield power in California. Labor is particularly strong in the Bay Area, where many politicians count on money and clout from unions.

That could be why local elected officials are not taking sides in the BART labor negotiations. From U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on down, politicians haven’t had much to say (aside from hoping that everything gets resolved one way or another).

Business leaders are not happy about this. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on Friday issued a release demanding that politicians do something, but again refrained from taking a side. Only a few members of the state Legislature have sounded off with an opinion, and it seemed to sympathize with the unions.

That politicians would be loath to cross labor is not surprising. Any watcher of state or local politics is familiar with the purple-shirted army of Service Employees International Union, which organizes state and municipal workers as well as health care workers and others. SEIU commands sizable volunteers and cash, and it is a constant presence at Democratic Party headquarters in every election. It’s Local 1021 represents BART workers.

Business also has been reluctant to criticize one side or the other. Aside from making its opposition to a strike known and advocating a change in state law to bring about binding arbitration in future BART labor talks — in other words, if both sides are at an impasse like the present one, a contract is written by a third party and both sides must abide by it in lieu of a strike — the Chamber of Commerce’s message Friday calls only for an agreement of some kind and takes pols to task for “standing on the sidelines.”

No lobby has been as opposed to BART workers as the Bay Area Council, a lobbying group funded by the area’s largest corporations. It was the council that estimated commuters’ two-hours-plus extra time spent in traffic during the 4½-day July strike cost the economy $73 million a day.

The most vocal legislators have been those in the East Bay. Following Wednesday’s hearing — when three labor experts appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown listened to both sides talk about the negotiations and their respective offers — East Bay Assembly members Nancy Skinner, Rob Bonta and Bill Quirk noted that management hasn’t been entirely honest.

BART management has said that the average worker takes home $79,500, which has made the riding public incredulous over the notion of station agents out-earning lawyers. Except it appears that’s not entirely fair: that figure takes into account upper management, including $300,000-a-year General Manager Grace Crunican. When actual front-line workers’ salaries are averaged, station agents earn $64,000 and train operators make $63,000.

— Chris Roberts, S.F. Examiner Staff Writer

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