Four years after agreeing to a wage freeze and reduced contributions to their health and retirement plans, BART workers are back at the table for contract talks that appear as though they could be more toxic than in 2009, when there were repeated threats of work stoppages and strikes.
The biggest issues in the contract talks are wages and compensation, including health care and pension contributions.
The unions are asking for an unspecified raise — likely a cost-of-living increase — while maintaining their benefits packages. BART management has balked at these items so far, according to Peter Saltzman, attorney for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, the agency’s second-biggest workers group.
Saltzman said that BART is asking for a wage freeze and for workers to contribute about 12 percent more to their annual retirement and medical plans. Saltzman said that amounts to roughly $40 million a year in savings — more than what BART asked of its workers back in 2009, when the unions agreed to concessions of about $25 million a year.
“We’re farther apart now than we were in 2009,” Saltzman said of this year’s contract talks.
BART officials declined to talk about specifics of the contract negotiations, but Carter Mau, the agency’s chief financial officer, said the agency’s projections for balancing its budget do not factor in any wage increases for employees.
The agency has also set up a website — bartlabornews.com — that lists a set of talking points regarding the discussions.
Because of rising health care costs, total compensation for BART workers has increased by 190 percent over the past 13 years, with the average employee now making more than $130,000 a year in total compensation, according to the
website. The site notes that workers pay less than $100 a month toward medical costs.
The agency boasts a surplus in its operating budget, but BART management has a capital budget shortfall of $6 billion over 10 years. BART has begun allocating operating funds to cover this hole, a move decried as a scare tactic by the union but defended by BART.
“We’re carrying 400,000 passengers a day,” said Paul Oversier, the operations manager at BART. “We’re bursting at the gills, and we need to address our operations and capacity issues.”
Tom Radulovich, president of BART’s board of directors, said the newfound fiscal responsibility under General Manager Grace Crunican is not a negotiation ploy.
“Management is finally telling the truth about capital needs, so I understand the union’s wariness,” Radulovich said. “I’m nervous that things could get ugly, because they have in the past.”
Union members said they wouldn’t discuss a possibility of work stoppages, but they were adamant about being proactive.
“We want a fair and equitable contract,” said Antonette Bryant, president of ATU Local 1555. “We’re doing this so our members can continue to live in the Bay Area.”
Oversier had a more pragmatic way of assessing the negotiations.
“I think, in the end, both sides are going to be equally unhappy,” Oversier said. “And that’s the sign of good negotiations.”