News Column

BART Infuriates Unions With PR Blitz

Aug. 4, 2013

John Wildermuth

OAKLAND -- Negotiators for BART and its unions were back in contract talks Saturday, but transit district officials have been working as hard in the media as they have at the bargaining table.

If the system's 2,600 union workers walk out at 12:01 a.m. Monday, the effort to build public backing could be as important as the actual contract negotiations.

BART "is bargaining in the media and it's very hard for us to counter," said Pete Castelli, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the system's largest union.

Over the past week, the transit agency has put out a steady stream of reports, all designed to cast union members as well-paid workers with far better benefits than many of the 400,000 people who ride the system's trains each weekday.

On Monday, for example, a BART news release said fares would have to rise by 18 percent to pay for the unions' call for a more than 20 percent pay raise over the next three years. Tuesday, the transit agency broke a gag order requested by state mediators to report that their negotiators had boosted their salary offer to the unions.

On Wednesday, the system provided charts and graphics suggesting that BART workers contribute less to their pension and medical benefits than most other public employees in the Bay Area.

Upgrades or salaries

At a news conference Thursday at BART's Oakland headquarters, General Manager Grace Crunican said that although workers are an integral and much-appreciated part of the transit system, "the real issue is that our system continues to be reliable into the future."

BART is planning on spending hundreds of millions in anticipated future revenue to buy 1,000 new train cars, build a Hayward maintenance complex and put in an updated train control system.

That's money that won't be used for increased worker pay and benefits.

BART's public relations effort has brought howls of complaints from union leaders, who charge that the transit system is trying to turn the public against them. Much of the information being put out is not only one-sided, but also exaggerated or incorrect, they argue.

"If you're going to demean us in public, at least demean us with issues and facts," Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1555, told BART directors at a board meeting Thursday.

Misplaced confidence?

Union officials insist publicly that BART's charm offensive isn't working and that the system's riders and the larger public are telling them they stand behind the workers.

"I don't think it's true that the public is on (BART's) side," said Castelli of the SEIU. "A lot of groups have called us and said we have their support and they will join us on the picket lines."

But a poll released Friday by the Bay Area Council, which represents more than 200 of the region's largest employers, found that 70 percent of the 475 respondents in the web-based survey opposed a strike by BART workers, with more than half saying the employees are overpaid.

A separate poll, released Thursday by KPIX-TV, found that 44 percent of the 800 Bay Area residents surveyed by phone believe that BART has made a better case for its position in the contract dispute, compared with 19 percent who liked the unions' efforts.

There's been plenty of anecdotal evidence that the unions are falling behind in the contest for the hearts and minds of Bay Area residents.

"Why are my friends mad at me because I work for BART?" Charmaine Ayers, a station agent from Pinole, asked at Thursday's BART directors meeting. "I can't even go to church without someone asking me about a strike."

July strike

In July, when a walkout shut down the transit system for four days, much of the anger was directed at the workers on the picket lines. When an agreement for a 30-day contract extension reopened the system, BART officials were forced to warn commuters not to harass the workers who were back on the job.

Union efforts to fight back against the BART publicity barrage have been limited. Labor leaders have refused to release the details of their own contract offers or say what compromises they have been willing to make to reach an agreement.

"We're under a gag order," said Josie Mooney, an SEIU negotiator. "Unlike BART management, the unions will not be put in a position to violate it."

But even when the unions do put together an event, they've been noticeably short of the Democratic politicians and liberal officeholders who typically have close ties to labor.

Pols avoid rally

A rally Wednesday at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland drew more than 700 BART workers and supporters. While a steady stream of labor leaders and community-group representatives vowed solidarity with the transit workers in the event of a strike, the lone public official to be seen was Shanell Williams, student trustee at City College of San Francisco.

Transit system officials insist that putting the spotlight on the district's offers and employees' paychecks isn't intended as an attack on workers, but is only an effort to get their side of the contract dispute out to their riders and the rest of the Bay Area.

"We're not trying to demonize workers," said Rick Rice, a BART spokesman. "But we felt the public had a right to know where our offer stood. What we've been releasing are the facts."

That's not the way it's seen by union members on the receiving end of complaints from their neighbors, nasty phone messages and heated tweets and text messages.

"I wish you guys wouldn't attack us," Ayers told BART directors. "I want to be able to go to church in peace."

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:


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