Are the BART unions becoming the Bay Area's Tea Party?
After talks between labor and management collapsed yesterday, the two unions that represent BART employees went on strike, shutting down the Bay Area’s most vital transportation system for the second time since July. And while the union leadership might be effective at the bargaining table, they're awful at public relations. A review of their public statements reveals eerie echoes of another group that recently forced a disastrous shutdown: right-wing Republicans in Congress.
Before we go any further, I have a confession. This story is painful to write. As a graduate student at UCSD, I was a member of the United Auto Workers (I don't know why it's the UAW that represent grad students, either) and I was happy to be in it. Unions are good things. The union movement is a good thing. I'd rather be wrong here—but I don't think I am.
Consider the recent rhetoric we've been hearing: "This is not a union strike," said the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 Antonette Bryant, according to the Chronicle. "This is a management strike brought on by absolute arrogance." That's not so different from Tea Party leader Senator Ted Cruz laying the rhetorical tracks for the shutdown by complaining about the “arrogance of this administration, that they don’t believe they’re accountable to the American people, and they are going to jam their agenda down the throats of the American people.”
Or listen to Pete Castelli, the executive director of the Service Employees International Union 1025, claiming that BART management is to blame for the unions’ strike: “I’m surprised and sorry to be standing here tonight,” he said, according to the New York Times. “In all my years in the labor movement, I’ve never seen an employer drive negotiations that were this close to a deal into a strike.” Also not so far from Senator Rand Paul claiming that the shutdown ought to be laid at the feet of Barack Obama: "The president is the one saying I will shut down government if you don't give me everything I want on Obamacare. That to me is the president being intransigent and being unwilling to compromise."
Or take a peek at a union-produced video uploaded to Youtube during the last strike. Its title: “They Treat Us Like Slaves.” That’s not exactly parallel to what conservative commenter Ben Carson said last week: “Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." In that case, the union rhetoric is actually more incendiary than the Tea Party’s.
The analogies don’t just include the speechifying—they are more substantive as well. Republican leadership in the House resisted putting a bill to re-open the government to a straight up-or-down floor vote for weeks. Likewise, the unions’ leaders refused management’s demands to put a contract offer in front of the full membership of the workers. And both the GOP and the unions seem willing to continue to fight round after round, despite the damage it's doing to both party and country. We may see yet another Washington meltdown when the debt ceiling deadline comes around on February 7th. We’ve already seen BART strikes—not just in July, but in 1997 and almost in again in 2005. What's to say they won't strike again after the next contract is up?
What’s most disturbing of all is how neither Republican proponents of a shutdown nor the union heads seem willing to accept ground rules that seem, well, obvious to the rest of us. Once a bill passes Congress, is signed by the President, and survives a legal challenge at the Supreme Court, it really is the law, isn’t it? Not according to the Tea Party. And, as the Chronicle's John Diaz points out, the BART union's contract contains a clause that explicitly prohibit worker strikes. Well, yes, but that contract has expired, says the union and, therefore, so has the clause. Then why, asks Diaz, has "BART extended all the other elements of the contract—wage scales, benefits, job protections, work rules, etc.—while the two sides remained in negotiation"? It's a damn good question.
In both sets of circumstances, the underlying issue may be this: Despite their small numbers, ultra-right congressmembers and ultra-angry BART employees have significant leverage to impact the lives of a far larger group of people and to fight for relatively unpopular policy demands. From their perspectives, that’s a good thing. For the broader public? Well, clearly, it's a disaster.