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Meet Your Friendly Local Union Roughnecks

Scott Lucas and Ben Christopher | July 3, 2013 | Story Politics

It may not be apparent from the surface—especially not to frustrated commuters—but the ongoing BART strikes have a larger political dimension beyond the unions' demands. In many ways, the strike is a critical test of one of the Bay Area's last remaining left-wing power centers—the unions. As San Francisco politics continues to drift towards moderate, if not conservative, downtown business friendliness, will the Great BART Stirke of 2013 be seen as the left's Alamo? San Francisco, it's time to meet your friendly neighborhood union toughs.

Roxanne Sanchez, President of Service Employees International Union 1021
The SEIU, a national umbrella goup that represents healthcare workers, janitors, and government employees, is a major force in the Bay Area through its Local 1021. Sanchez come to power in 2010 as part of a leadership slate that defeated allies of the national organization, according to The Daily Kos. (She had previously been president of a smaller union, Local 790, that merged into the larger 1021.) The Bay Area had been one site of a internecine conflict between allies of former national president Andy Stern, who from 1996 to 2010 built close relationships with democratic leaders from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to Barack Obama. Stern drew criticism locally for internal battles against a breakaway faction of hospital employees, the New Union of Healthcare Workers. Part of Sanchez's appeal was that she was less accommodating with employers—and promised to support a larger progressive agenda. It's no surprise that leading up to, and during, the BART strike, she's defend Local 1021 in terms borrowed from Occupy, releasing a statement in defense of the strikes that said, in part, "Our employers are choosing the 1% over the 99%; Wall Street over Main Street; and banks over the residents and workers of Oakland."

Antonette Bryant, the President of Local 1555 of the Amalgamated Transit Union
In their own words, the Bay Area chapter of the ATU represents the folks who “make BART work.” These are the familiar brass tacks workers in blue who drive the trains, work the yards, and occupy the station booths. As president of the local since 2010, Antonette Bryant came to the job with blue-collar bona fides, earned over the course of two decades as a station agent. Between the two unions on strike, ATU has historically been the more aggressive, says Beyond Chron’s Randy Shaw, who wrote a primer on the origins of the labor dispute yesterday. Ever since the three-month BART strike in 1979, relations between labor and management have been “poisonous,” he says. “This is a long standing problem,” he told us over the phone. “It’s the same lack of respect from management that you’ve had for 30 years.” But under Bryant’s tenure, with BART coffers flush and the union looking to make up for five years of recession-justified pay freezes, that relationship has deteriorated again. Making the safety and security of employees her line of attack, Bryant has slammed management for asking union members to risk life and limb without proportionate recompense. That bitterness is compounded all the more, writes Shaw, by the uncomfortable but unavoidable racial mismatch between the union and management. While much of BART’s general management, much of the upper level administration, and all but one of the board of directors is white, the ATU local rank and file are largely African American. It was certainly no accident then that a video posted online by the local on the eve of the strike bore the title, “They Treat Us Like Slaves.”

Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU 1012
As Sanchez’s non-elected counterpart at the local SEIU, Pete Castelli is a career labor organizer, and the leader of the one-day strike by Oakland municipal workers on Monday. In Fremont, Castelli spent nearly a decade as an organizer and rep at one of the state’s most politically astute (and alternated revered and reviled) unions, the California Nurses Association. That was punctuated by a four-year stint in Sri Lanka, overseeing South Asian unionization efforts with Solidarity International. Landing at the Bay Area SEIU office last year as executive director of the region and lead negotiator in Oakland, he’s helped inject a certain “Mad as Hell” vigor into the newly reconstituted local. Take last year’s high-profile Port of Oakland strike. “Within 12 hours we had secured higher wages,” says Castelli. “But whether it’s the Port of Oakland or the City of Oakland or BART, we’re tired of concessions. We’ve seen revenue increases at BART, but no matter how money comes in, the employers don’t just want cuts—they want to structurally change our jobs to treat us like independent contractors. Now we’re standing up.”

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