If there's a constant about transit labor disputes it's that cooling-off periods seldom result in any cooling off of tensions. Nonetheless, a 60-day break is what a San Francisco judge has prescribed for the standoff involving BART workers who threatened to walk out on strike again Monday. The judge noted that such a strike would have a "significant harm to the public's health, safety and welfare."
Most Bay Area drivers would certainly agree with that. And so far, that's where BART workers are failing to win their dispute — in the hearts and minds of Bay Area residents.
A recent Survey USA/KPIX-TV poll showed that 44 percent of Bay Area residents believe BART management has made a better case in seeking to scale back benefits and require workers to contribute toward their retirement costs. Just 19 percent supported the workers.
Small wonder. A demand for a 15 percent pay raise over three years is hard to swallow for many who have seen their incomes shrink considerably over the past five years.
A recent analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed BART management contentions that BART workers, whose salaries average $79,500 a year, are already among the best paid transit workers in the nation. This is particularly true when considering that BART workers pay nothing toward their generous pensions and they pay $92 a month for their health care.
BART workers say they're willing to start contributing toward the share of their pensions, but they want to be reimbursed for it. Employees say they're willing to contribute 7 percent of their pension costs. But in exchange, they want BART to give them a 6.5 percent pay raise the first year. That's in addition to the 15 percent raise over three years.
Meanwhile, BART is facing a $142 million operating budget shortfall over the next 10 years and is also $636 million behind in setting aside funds to meet retirement obligations.
That's why so much is riding on a fair resolution of this dispute. Unlike police and firefighters, transit workers are not prevented from striking. But other public employee unions are certainly keeping a close eye on how this dispute plays out.
Many public employees have gone without salary increases over the past five years. Some — particularly new hires — also have seen their contributions to their retirement benefits increase as the state recognized that the benefit packages of old are unsustainable.
But there's another reason public employees are following the BART dispute. An obscure federal labor law requires the Department of Labor to sign off on any federal grant to a state or local transit authority. Unions are objecting that California's 2012 reforms violate federal collective bargaining rights. So far, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is blocking release of state and local transit funds. Since California approved pension reforms last year, unions have refused to give clearance, and the funds have not been released.
The danger is that if transit labor unions win this dispute, other public employees unions including public safety employees likely would seek similar exemptions.
California needs to take a firm stand against such an end-run around common-sense reform efforts. These efforts present as much a threat of "significant harm" to the public's well-being as another transit strike. Only the effects are longer lasting.