BY NORTON SANDLER AND ASKAI TOURÉ
SAN FRANCISCO - "We raised the bar for all workers by winning this strike," Steve Gilbert told the Militant. "The fact that we ended the two-tier system and won the wage gains we did sends a message to other workers that they can win some gains too, if they fight." Gilbert has worked for six years as a mechanic at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).
Some 2,500 Bay Area transit workers who are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union (ATU), and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) stood up to a carefully orchestrated and high- pitched campaign in the big business press and broadcast media here to score some solid gains during their week-long strike, which ended on September 13.
Workers began returning to their jobs immediately after the tentative settlement was announced and trains began running again September 15.
A ratification vote by the membership of the two unions is scheduled for September 19.
The strike began September 7, when a "cooling-off" period mandated by California Governor Peter Wilson ended and the membership of the ATU and SEIU rejected what management termed its "best and final offer." BART spokespeople said they would offer the unions pay raises totaling nine percent over three years and said they would not spend more than $28 million on the next contract with the two unions.
In 1994 management succeeded in forcing through a new setup under which it took new hires six years to reach top pay. This guaranteed that new hires never got more than 90 percent of what their co-workers were paid during the life of the three-year contract. BART management tried in this round of negotiations to not only extend the existing two- tier pay scheme, but also set up a third level where new hires would receive only 75 percent of the top rate of pay. The demand to eliminate these tiers and built-in wage inequalities was the major issue uniting the union members. This had become a major bone of contention as the expanding transit authority hired 500 new workers, many of them young, over the last two years. These workers began demanding to be paid equal wages for carrying out the same work. "I'm doing the same work for almost $3 less an hour," mechanic Paul Nadon explained. "I want the two-tier gone now."
"We talked to workers with more seniority about this. We won them over that it wasn't in our interest to be divided. So we had a solid front on this crucial issue," Gilbert said.
Under the terms of the tentative September 13 settlement, the members of the two unions will receive a $3,000 lump sum bonus for 1997 and then a 4 percent pay increase for the next three years of the four-year contract. Previous contracts between the union and BART have run for three years. AFSCME members are "me too-ed" in the agreement.
The tier schemes have been eliminated and the progression to get to top pay shortened. Instead of at least six years, it will now take three years to get to top pay for ATU members and four years for SEIU members. Gilbert noted that four years is still a long time, "but it is a step forward." The unionists also won improvement in their dental plan for the first time in 24 years.
Vicious antiunion campaign
From the opening minutes of the strike, the big-business media tried to turn public opinion against the strikers. The San Francisco Chronicle ran article after article, as well as editorials, blasting the strikers for causing "suffering" for the 270,000 Bay Area residents who use the BART system during the workweek. The BART system has been in existence for 25 years. It was designed to bring middle-class people and others into the financial district of San Francisco from around the Bay Area.
The Chronicle editorialized that "the strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. yesterday is hard to justify." The media repeated over and over that the BART workers under their old contract received a base wage of nearly $41,000 a year and mechanics a base wage of $48,000 a year. At the same time, the media tried to trivialize the unions' demands to get rid of tiers and shorten pay progression periods. "Most people can understand - and accept - the concept that newcomers should initially receive less than veterans. It is a common practice in most of the work world, including the transit industry," the Chronicle editors opined.
Cartoons and the letters pages of the papers every day were organized to try to whip up a campaign against the supposedly overpaid workers.
State Senator Quentin Kopp announced plans to press for new legislation that would ban strikes by transit workers.
Much was also made in the press about taunts striking pickets received from those passing by closed suburban train stations. "The strikers are getting spat on and screamed at. Commuters are blowing their tops," a Chronicle article stated the morning before the strike ended. "The hostility is so intense that the strike line at the Pleasant Hill BART station had to be canceled yesterday because of threats to the pickets," the same article said. "Pickets also have soda-cup ice and garbage thrown at them, and sometimes shouting or shoving matches erupt with people who walk up to argue."
This was far from the whole picture. Trade unionists who visited the BART picket lines were extremely well received. Outside the Colma maintenance barn where pickets gathered, many passing by honked their horns in a show of support for the strikers during the course of the day. Some union locals dropped off doughnuts and food for the strikers there as well.
"We've had people drive by our picket lines and throw bottles, we've been spit upon and sworn at, but we've held our own," striker Dennis Jones told the New York Times at the end of the strike. Gilbert agreed. "We didn't have a good media strategy. We'll learn. But we shut them down and won the strike."
Seeking to take credit for the workers victory, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown told a convention of the Service Employees International Union meeting in Washington, D.C., September 16, "I am the end effort of labor's magnificent political action."
The San Francisco Chronicle reported, "BART might not have settled so quickly had BART's unions not `been part of a very strong political movement in the Bay Area,' Brown said. It was the pressure and the `back-door activities' applied by pro-union politicians that `put pressure on BART officials.'"
Norton Sandler works at San Francisco Airport and is a
member of International Association of Machinists local
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