Report: Bad blood, bad decisions precipitated BART strike

AP File PhotoBART has created an infographic explaining why trains are constantly packed. The answer? The answer? There aren't enough train cars.

AP File PhotoBART has created an infographic explaining why trains are constantly packed. The answer? The answer? There aren't enough train cars.

A “nearly universal lack of trust” between BART and its union workforce led to the strikes that twice halted the Bay Area's crucial transit network last year, a new report commissioned by BART's elected board of directors has found.

Blame is laid at the feet of both labor and BART management for a “hostile start” to labor negotiations that led to no progress toward a deal and, as the summer wore on, “quickly spiraled down” into a “strike that virtually no one wanted.”

However, in the days leading up to the first strike on July 1, 2013, BART's general manager was warned by the agency's outside counsel that BART management's strategy “would almost certainly be a formula for a strike” that somehow caught the agency off-guard, the report found.

The report, written by Washington state-based conflict resolution consultancy Agreement Dynamics, relies on anonymous interviews from BART board members, union officials, and management to figure out what caused last year's strikes.

An “overhaul of the entire system and culture” at the transit agency, where many feel “things have hit an unprecedented low point,” may be required to rebuild trust and undo deep-seated animosity between BART workers and management, according to the report, which also lays out 63 recommendations for BART to take up in order to improve labor-management relations before the next time the labor contract is up in 2017.

It took almost all of last year for BART and its main unions — Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 945 station agents and train operators, and Service Employees International Union Local 1021, with 1,400 workers who are mostly mechanics and service workers — to come to terms on a new four-year labor contract following givebacks from labor in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Negotiations over pay increases, employee pension contributions and workplace rules began April 1, 2013, and broke down multiple times before a deal was reached in December that saw BART's annual labor costs rise from $401 million a year to $468 million.

Neither involvement from Gov. Jerry Brown nor the presence of the federal government's top labor negotiator could stave off the strikes that halted BART's 669 trains and stranded its 400,000-plus daily passengers for 4½ days in July and for another four days in late October.

“No one seemed to assume a leadership role in seeking to keep the talks alive,” the report found, adding that “there did not appear to be strong efforts to get a deal.”

Meanwhile, thanks to choking traffic and media reports that “heavily favored the management perspective,” public opinion of BART workers was so low that many union members reported covering up BART patches on their clothes to avoid confrontations, the report found.

A deal was finally reached on Oct. 21, two days after the on-track deaths of a nonstriking union worker and an outside contractor. The pair were struck and killed by a BART train driven by management employees.

A third strike briefly seemed possible in November, when BART's board of directors discovered that the agency's negotiating team had in July signed off on a provision without reading it — one BART manager, Paul Oversier, told the report's authors that there were so many provisions, “I just started signing” — and rejected the contract, spurring a lawsuit from labor.

Since then, politicians and the public have called for a ban on BART strikes, which has so far been a nonstarter in labor-friendly California.

BART is working on following the report's recommendations, BART General Manager Grace Crunican told The San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday.

“We made mistakes,” admitted Crunican, who added that the agency is meeting with its “terrific workers … every day” to rebuild bridges and has already made “tremendous progress.”

More effective than everyday workplace trust will be a better approach next time negotiations begin, said Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU 1021.

“Trust to us is bargaining in good faith,” he said.

It may take much longer for BART's 210 workers at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3993 to trust management.

“There is tremendous anger and blame towards certain high-level” BART managers over the Oct. 19 deaths of AFSCME member Christopher Sheppard and outside contractor Laurence Daniels on the tracks in Walnut Creek, the report said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release its final report on the deaths this year.

In any event, there's widespread agreement that “there needs to be a cultural shift to labor-management relations,” BART Director Zahkary Mallet said. “We clearly do have a broken system at BART.”

Correction: This story was updated Sept. 10 to correct the spelling of Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU 1021.

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