San Francisco Chronicle: BART labor talks have many stakeholders

I am a regular rider on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The fact that BART’s fares have increased up to 50 percent over the last 10 years hasn’t been excessively burdensome for me. A round trip on BART still costs less than driving and is much better for the environment. (Parking fees at BART lots have also increased, but generally I walk or take buses to BART stations.) But I doubt all riders, 40 percent of whom are low income, feel the same.

BART’s fares, however, must keep pace with its costs, and the largest of those is employee compensation and benefits, which make up 58 percent of operating expenses. Since 2000, BART’s spending on wages and benefits has risen more than 60 percent.

It’s not that BART employees take home Wall Street-level wages. They don’t. Average compensation is $130,000 per employee, including salary and health and retirement benefits. With more than 3,200 BART employees however, that’s about $400 million per year.

This is why riders have a big stake in the BART negotiations – and why those negotiations are not simply a matter of choosing to stand with labor or management. It is also whether to stand with riders.

BART workers also have a big stake in negotiations, but not just for the obvious and perfectly legitimate reason that they’d like to be paid more. It is because BART has a deeply underfunded retirement system. If more money is not paid into that system, retiree benefits are at risk. Actions taken (or not taken) 10 and 20 years ago by self-proclaimed pro-labor politicians in Detroit, Chicago, Stockton and San Bernardino have ended up producing enormous pain for citizens in those fiscally challenged cities and municipal employees. The same thing could happen to BART retirees.

Because Stockton failed to set aside a single penny for retiree health care, innocent city retirees saw their health care benefits completely eliminated in a single day. Because Detroit failed to set aside enough money for pensions, municipal retirees have been offered only 10 cents on the $1 for their pension benefits. By underfunding retirement promises and even engaging in smear campaigns against those who called for better funding of retirement promises, supposedly pro-labor politicians did a disservice to the very people they claimed to support.

BART workers are already paying a price for poor past practices because a portion of BART’s current benefit costs goes to cover underfunded past promises. Worse, by continuing the same practice, future workers are being set up for a larger dose of the same pain.

There are two more constituencies with a big stake in the outcome of the BART negotiations: the environment and Bay Area citizens, who benefit from a transportation system that helps keep the air clean, greenhouse gas pollution low and our streets and highways less congested.

Every time I ride BART, I give thanks to the visionaries who conceived and built the system decades ago. But the system needs more than thanks – it needs a meaningful share of its revenue to go to maintenance, to improvements and, hopefully, to expansion.

There is no win-win outcome in the BART negotiations. All these constituencies need to be treated fairly: Workers deserve fair wages, benefits and secure retirement funds; riders deserve reasonable fares, a safe network and good service; and the environment and future generations deserve a robust and growing BART network. Negotiators need to keep all that in mind.

David Crane is a lecturer at Stanford University and president of Govern for California.

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