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Strike three

If BART doesn’t run, does it matter? photo: Robert S. Donovan

If you follow Facebook feeds for any length of time, sooner or later you will read some inane political debate on the Facebook page of one of your friends or contacts. A couple months ago, one appeared in which the original poster argued for raising the minimum wage. One of the first responses was from someone who said that we shouldn’t raise the incomes of “people who choose a lifestyle” of a minimum wage job, because it was their choice.

Ah, yes, living the Good Life on $15,000 a year – it’s the Minimum Wage Lifestyle to which all Americans aspire. But it’s also the lifestyle people end up with when they have no bargaining power, the economic and political system are united against them, and all their allies abandon them.

In early August, Governor Jerry Brown answered the prayers of annoyed Bay Area commuters and put off for seven days a BART strike. When that week was almost up, he answered even more prayers and convinced a judge to grant a 60-day “cooling off” period during which no strike can occur but during which the union and management are supposed to come closer together.

The prayers he didn’t answer, of course, were those of the BART employees, because by preventing a strike and making it clear he was going to keep preventing a strike, he took away whatever leverage they had in their battle with management.

Maybe you don’t ride BART. But maybe some of your employees or coworkers use it and Muni to reach your business. Maybe you run a shop in the Marina and some of your customers come to the City via BART. Or maybe you do use it to ride to work or recreation elsewhere in the Bay Area. Very likely, in some way, BART affects you. You also affect BART.

I’ll spare you all the latest “decline of American labor” rhetoric and statistics, because everyone knows about it. What most people don’t know, I suspect, is that the culprit isn’t always right-wing billionaire businessmen. Sometimes, as it is this time, the culprit is liberals who give lip service to workers’ rights but then don’t want to live with the consequences.

The reasoning behind the governor stepping in and taking sides — and by disarming the union, he was most definitely taking sides, though he might deny it — is that a strike by BART employees threatens significant economic harm. Think about that: Our economy is too fragile to allow BART employees to strike. During bad economic times, that argument might hold; but the Bay Area is booming. California’s budget is back on track. So if we just can’t put up with any labor action that causes some minor economic disruption during boom times, then when can we?

Apparently not during any time when people might feel inconvenienced.

Yes, it inconveniences many people. That’s what strikes do. Even at the stereotypical factory strike, in which many people assume the only ones being inconvenienced are fat cat owners in three-piece suits lighting their cigars with rolls of cash, scores of other people are inconvenienced, including the workers and proprietors of all kinds of suppliers and customers who can’t get what they want from the factory when they need it.

I have heard all too many staunch liberals express utter conviction that somebody — the governor, mayors, whoever — should stop the BART strike. When Governor Brown finally stepped in just before a threatened early-August strike, these people were pleased.

But should they be? At least, should they be in a non-hypocritical world?

Take away its right to strike, or undercut it as the governor did, and you’ve defanged the union. That might or might not be desirable; that’s debatable. After all, the union was requesting a ridiculous raise of more than 23 percent over the next four years. If, like me, people think the union’s demands have been too high, then they should argue specifically against those demands. A San Jose Mercury News editorial did that powerfully:

They work only 37½ hours a week. They can call in sick during the workweek and then volunteer for overtime shifts on their days off. [O]vertime … in 2012 added an average 19 percent to base pay for station agents and 33 percent for train operators. Meanwhile, BART faces a $142 million operating shortfall over the next 10 years. It already owes a $636 million debt for employees’ pension and retiree health care benefits. Aging train cars and the train control system must be replaced. And BART faces billions of dollars of deferred maintenance and repairs.

A strike can accomplish two things: It puts pressure on their management opponents, and it shows just how much public support the union’s demands actually have—or don’t have—in the general population. Let the system work.

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