This editorial is from the <WC1>San Jose Mercury News:
BART trains are rolling again, but last week's strike is on hold rather than resolved; the union and management are no closer to agreement than they were when workers walked off the job a week ago. And there's a social trend in play here, explored in a weekend news story by Bay Area News Group reporter Josh Richman, that's larger than this particular BART contract.
Public employee unions remain powerful as private sector unions have declined, and they are fighting to recover from cuts or status-quo contracts they endured during the recession. They believe the fact that private sector workers also have lost financial ground is all the more reason for public employees to stand up for fair compensation and set a standard.
They're right about one thing: The shrinkage of America's middle class — once its proudest asset, the powerful engine of a consumer economy — is a serious national problem that casts doubt on our ability to remain a land of opportunity for all. The gap between rich and poor has been widening for many years. The recession just accelerated the trend.
But public employees' expectation that <WC>they <WC1>should quickly recover the ground they've lost is flawed for this reason: The private sector workers they say will be helped by unions' success are the same people who will have to pay the immediate bill for public employee raises, despite their own continuing financial struggles. And even before this recession, most did not have the kinds of pensions and practically free health care that BART workers and some other public employees still enjoy.
The conundrum plays out in different ways for different unions, but in the case of BART, the union position is particularly vulnerable to consumer perception of greed.
BART workers seeking a 23 percent pay increase are already the top-paid transit system employees in the region and among the best-paid in the nation. They have free pensions, health care coverage for any size family for just $92 a month no matter how huge a gap in costs must be covered by taxpayers, and the same sweet insurance deal when they retire. They have a 37? hour work week, but they can call in sick and then volunteer for overtime shifts on their days off. No wonder overtime in 2012 added an average 19 percent to base pay for station agents and 33 percent for train operators. It's out of control.
These excesses make the union's position untenable. It's standard to start out asking for the moon in contract negotiations, but at the point of calling a strike, BART workers were still in the stratosphere. This despite looming budget deficits for the transit agency.
The labor movement won basic rights for all working Americans in the 20th century, helping to build that strong middle class. But a public employee strike today for pay and perks that exceed the reach of the people <WC>paying the bills is no way to establish common ground.