This Monday the entire Bay Area will most likely be plunged into transportation chaos when the BART system shuts down due to a strike. Every time the contract is up for renewal we go through this, spending weeks under threat of a strike or actually suffering through one. And while I have no doubt that BART management contributes to the dysfunctional nature of the organization, and the poor quality of their regular (very expensive) service, and undoubtedly is as overpaid as most management in America, I have to reserve my anger for the unions, which rejected an excessively generous contract for their already overpaid members.
Normally I am a staunch union supporter. I avoid crossing picket lines even if it means inconveniencing myself. I am regularly nauseated by the American tendency to blame all economic problems on workers (as opposed to the financial drain caused by lack of a sensible national healthcare system, or inflated management salaries, or short-sighted management decisions). But the one group that turns me from Mother Jones to Maggie Thatcher is the BART workers.
“Workers” implies that they actually work, of course. Maybe I should just refer to them as BART employees? I regularly defend the salaries of professional athletes and actors, and I’m happy to see generous wages going to firefighters, nurses, pastry chefs, miners, bus drivers – people who actually do things at their jobs. The BART drivers don’t really drive, of course, and the station attendants are notoriously lazy, rude, and unhelpful. None of them even have to deal with the public in any sort of direct way; they just sit in their little glass booths staring out at struggling travelers.
I’m sure they don’t think so, of course. Just a few weeks ago, when it was very obvious that I was checking a posted schedule, a station attendant asked me if I had a question. Clearly he was trying to pretend the station agents do something, so that during their little strike-time pity parties they can weep over how little the public understands or appreciates them. (Incidentally, the schedule at the entrance and the one on the platform didn’t match, which is not unusual on BART. It was a Sunday, so good luck getting a train to show up on time anyway.)
And they’ll always mention what they did during the Loma Prieta earthquake. I wasn’t here at the time, and will assume they did do what they say they did; yes, almost twenty years ago, there was an emergency, and many BART employees were called upon to do something resembling work, a novel occurrence that clearly made some sort of impression on them, since they still bring it up, as possibly the sole instance in which they were useful to the passengers.
But we live in the day-to-day, and day-to-day is where the BART employees fail regularly. I’ve stopped and helped tourists trying to figure out the ticketing system, only to realize that a station agent had been sitting right there ignoring them; I’ve had operators not only shut the doors in my face, but make rude gestures to taunt me because I would have to wait another twenty-plus minutes for another train to show up; I’ve smelled the stench of drivers smoking in their little compartments on the train; I’ve waited on a cold, dark, wet platform for an early morning train that never showed up, only to be told when I contacted BART that their records showed the trains had been there, so I was obviously wrong, even though I’m the one who was on the platform. Everyone who takes BART regularly pretty much knows it’s a waste of time trying to get help from a station agent.
And do we need to be reminded that the entire state of California, and many of its inhabitants, are in economic freefall? Absolutely nobody thinks the BART employees are worth what they get now. Yet when they were offered a contract that didn’t require layoffs and that maintained their current, outrageously high salaries – they already have higher incomes and better benefits than many of their riders, me included – one union rejected it since it was for four years, and they wanted it for two. And that means all the unions will go out on strike, even the ones that had enough sense to realize it would be wise of them to take their already ridiculously generous salaries without drawing too much attention to them.
Their attitude goes beyond greedy into delusional. Fares have already been hiked earlier than expected, and I’m noticing a drop-off in ridership during rush hour. As a non-driver I’m stuck with BART, but given the expense and inconvenience of taking their increasingly dirty and crowded trains, I’m not surprised that those who can will take other transportation instead. Since the increased expense is largely to subsidize employees who are already overpaid, and increased expense drives riders away, I’m seeing a self-defeating trend, at a time when it’s more important than ever to get people out of their cars and onto clean, inexpensive, accessible, and convenient public transportation.
Even if the dispute is settled at the last minute and we’re not plunged into the same mess we had last time, I have to ask why this situation is allowed to continue – why it’s OK for a small and already pampered group to hold the entire area hostage like this.
It’s been months now that a strike has been threatened. I’ve been holding off on buying any tickets for evenings when I might not be able to get back home. I’ve held on to any possible vacation days, since I’ll need (for reasons of mental health) to waste some of my precious few vacation days in the event of a strike. And my income has taken a direct hit with the continuously increasing fares; yes, my fixed expenses have increased so that I can subsidize a group that is already grotesquely overcompensated.
What really angers me the most is not the cost and trouble to me personally, or the helpless feeling that comes when you’re being held hostage. No, it’s this: at a time when it’s more important than ever that workers’ rights be respected, we have a group that embodies every ludicrous right-wing claim against the union movement: lazy, greedy, arrogant goldbrickers who fatten themselves at the expense of other workers. It’s painful to admit that the contemptible right-wing has somehow stumbled into accuracy, but they can always point to the BART unions when they want to slander the whole labor movement. Is reality going to intervene at some point? Why is this allowed to continue?