In San Francisco BART strike, both sides feel the heat

Although BART and unions have resumed talks, the San Francisco transit strike is still on. With commuters' sympathy wearing thin, BART and union workers are fighting a ticking clock, one expert says.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Bay Area Rapid Transit workers picket outside of a station in Millbrae, Calif., on July 1, 2013. Since Monday, two of the largest unions representing San Francisco BART have been on strike, arguing that BART management has failed to meet their demands on salaries, pensions, and safety issues.

As San Francisco transit workers wage the fourth day of a strike that has crippled Bay Area commuters, both unions and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) management are facing pressure from frustrated residents to settle, fast.

After talks over a new contract broke down and 2,400 workers went on strike, unions resumed bargaining with BART Tuesday evening on salaries, pensions, and safety issues. Although officials on both sides expressed optimism over renewed talks, their time is running out: Commuters slogging through bumper-to-bumper traffic and city officials wringing their hands over millions of dollars in lost worker productivity are growing impatient.

“You can bet that both the strike organizers and BART officials are watching the crowd, because this is inconveniencing a lot of people," says David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies social movements.

On the unions’ side, it is a difficult road ahead. With much of their power having dissipated over the last several years and their remaining leverage, striking, carrying the risk of alienating public support, unions must keep the public’s attention on issues that matter to a broader audience, Mr. Meyer says.

“Most people in America, sadly, aren’t sympathetic to anyone who wants a raise, so the issue is to reach a base of support that lets them stay out there without tarnishing their image,” Meyer says.

With area newspapers calling unions' demands for 23-percent salary raises over the next four years "outrageous" and "out of touch" with reality, it is possible that focusing on other issues, such as safety at BART stations, will more effectively rouse public support for the unions, Meyer says.

For instance, in a lawsuit filed on June 24, 2013, the unions say more than 2,400 “serious crimes,” including more than 100 physical assaults on employees and 1,000 physical assaults on riders, have occurred at five BART stations in the last three years. Management’s “failure to bargain in good faith” is imperiling the health and safety of not only BART workers but also commuters, the lawsuit alleges.

When unions are able to talk about issues that carry broad appeal, they stand a greater chance of being “effective organizers,” Meyer says.

But it is not just the unions that are carefully planning their next moves. With their employees’ strike shutting down the fifth largest rail system in the US, BART management is likely feeling the heat, too.

“The public sector is under severe financial constraints. They’re still trying to deliver the same services for less; and for most jobs, labor is the highest cost, so people try to squeeze it and get as much out of it as they can,” Meyer says.

As negotiations continue, both the unions and BART management will likely be keeping a close eye on public sentiment. Already, they have been slammed by frustrated state officials, who, in a letter issued Wednesday, decried the "widespread personal hardship and severe economic disruption" the strike has caused.

When either side “thinks the people of San Francisco are on their side, they’re going to be more resolute about defining their interests,” Meyer says.

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