Strike three? BART workers considering next steps as directors reject paid-leave provision

Ben Margot/AP file photoBART's Board of Directors voted to approve a labor contract between BART and its workers but removed a controversial section of the agreement.

BART workers are “considering all options” — which could include litigation or the third strike of 2013 — after the transit agency presented to its unions Thursday a different labor contract than the one overwhelmingly ratified earlier this month.

BART’s elected board of directors voted 8-1 to remove a provision from the transit agency’s hard-won contract allowing for six weeks of paid medical emergency leave, repeating earlier claims that it was never meant to be included.

Union leaders — whose rank-and-file approved on Nov. 1 the package of wage increases and changes to retirement and medical benefits that included the medical leave — called the move “illegal” and are now huddled with attorneys and their membership to plot the next move.

Under federal law, all employees can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with dying family members or pregnancies. Currently, BART workers need to use sick time or vacation time to receive time off with pay.

Allowing paid time off for medical leave could cost up to $10.5 million, if double the amount of BART employees who took unpaid leave in the past year took the paid leave, according to the transit agency.

Every member of BART’s elected board of directors agreed that the paid leave was too expensive a benefit for BART, which would see its $401 million annual cost for labor increase to $468 million by 2017 under the new contract.

Outraged, BART’s unions are now “considering all options,” leaders said in a statement from Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents BART mechanics and custodians.

In addition to earning threats of litigation, BART may have found a way to add to the enormous ill-will by unilaterally removing the paid leave without offering anything in return.

While BART was urged to swallow the “mistake” and approve the contract by Larry Williams, its former chief negotiator from 1977 to 1997, removing the paid leave provision may have been a conservative move by the public’s standards.

Director Gail Murray said Thursday that she had received “many, many, many” emails — including 739 that day — from members of the public, most of which “tell us to reject the entire contract.”

The BART board’s decision met with sharp words from the unions, which accused management of pulling a fast one.

“So apparently we can take out sections we don’t like and then bring that to be voted on?” asked Patricia Schuchardt, president of AFSCME Local 3993, which represents train controllers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees did not participate in the October strike and is not scheduled to vote on its contract until next month. “Those are the new rules?”

It’s still unclear exactly who at BART made the error, and how the error wasn’t noticed until November, after the tentative agreement had been approved by both BART management and the unions.

A statement from BART pins the blame on an unnamed “temporary employee” who let the provision — which had already been rejected — slip in during talks in July.

BART’s former outside chief negotiator, Tom Hock, told The San Francisco Examiner an in-house BART negotiator let the family leave provision slip into the deal, which was approved by BART brass, including General Manager Grace Crunican.

Either way, “no one has come forward to say, ‘I’m responsible,’” noted Director James Fang, who added that the lack of accountability has made the relationship between BART and the unions — already at an all-time low — even worse.

BART also took steps Thursday to prepare for more negotiations, in case the unions reject the newly amended contract.

Replacing Hock — whom BART paid $420,000, including expenses — as chief negotiator will be Bruce Conhain, a Fairfield-based labor negotiator who was BART’s point man during the six-day strike in 1997.

Conhain, whom BART paid $99,000 to assist Hock over the summer and fall, will receive up to $70,000 should talks — or strike threats — resume.

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