Why BART workers can't be replaced during strike

At office water coolers across the Bay Area, the conversations lately have turned to the BART strike. A fun water-drinking game is to take a sip whenever someone mentions “Ronald Reagan” or “air traffic controllers.”

“Jerry Brown should pull a Reagan and fire 'em all and hire replacements! I'd love to pay only $92 a month for health insurance for my whole fam damnly,” my friend said, careful to make sure the boss wasn't around.

And while I generally rate the competence of BART leadership somewhere between Bart Simpson and Paula Deen's crisis response team, in this case their less-than-Reagan approach is due to legal constraints.

In 1981, as president, Reagan was able to terminate more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers because he declared their continued absence to be a “peril to national safety” and thus illegal. That was an important designation because — even in California — without a threat to safety, public workers are allowed to strike and they cannot be fired.

In this case, because the BART shutdown does not pose an “imminent danger to public health and safety,” the strike is legal per California law.

As for why temporary replacements cannot be hired? As BART spokesman Rick Rice has explained, operating the trains requires special certification from the California Public Utilities Commission.

“That's a process that takes a while,” he said.

In the end, BART workers will get to return to their jobs when the strike is over. I hope the same is true for all the commuters whose schedules have been disrupted by the shutdown.

Melissa Griffin's column runs each Thursday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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