A five-year labor contract with BART's major unions was approved Thursday, a year before the current contract expires, in an effort to avoid another round of acrimonious negotiations at a time when BART officials are looking to rebuild the system infrastructure and planning to ask voters to approve a $3.5 billion bond.
BART made the surprising announcement last month that it had reached tentative agreements with its biggest labor unions, granting its 3,300 workers a 10.5% raise over the next five years.
The contract is similar to one reached in 2013 after BART workers staged two strikes that crippled Bay Area transportation. BART's board of directors and union leaders today hailed the early agreement as evidence that BART had moved beyond the toxic state of its relationship with its employees to a far more productive one.
"It was not a contract that the unions thought was great, but it is a contract that is great for all of us in healing," Service Employees International Union Local 1021 BART chapter president John Arantes said.
Neither side got exactly what it wanted.
BART director Gail Murray pointed out the wage increases may not even cover the skyrocketing cost of living in the area, and not everyone on the board agreed with all of the contract provisions. Two board members, Zakhary Mallett and Joel Keller, voted against it.
Mallett said his feeling was that the public was opposed to the agreement. While he thinks the wage increases are reasonable, he said the contract leaves in place wasteful spending in benefit packages that he estimates will cost $50 million over the life of the contract.
"This is just extending a bad contract," Mallett said. "I wish that we have done a more thorough negotiation."
Keller said he was conflicted and wasn't sure how he would vote just a few minutes prior to casting it.
He said he agreed with many things about the contract but has concerns about whether the economy, and BART's revenue, will be able to sustain its costs. Ridership may dip after years of growth, sales tax revenue has shown signs of declining, and the Bay Area economy might not maintain its current level of prosperity.
But board President Tom Radulovich called the 2013 contract "a pretty robust agreement" that he said has worked well over the past few years.
Radulovich said BART's budget concerns go far beyond the cost of the labor contract, and cuts to wages and benefits would do little to contribute to the billions it will cost to rebuild BART's aging infrastructure.
The agency is still hurting from cuts to state and federal assistance that came during the recent economic downturn. Meanwhile, Radulovich said BART's system, with many components built in the 1970s, is "beyond its useful life."
Several projects are already in place to reconstruct the BART system, including an order of new train cars that have already begun arriving and are expected to enter service by the end of the year.
But BART is also looking to replace miles of track and upgrade its train control systems to a much more modern system that will allow it to run trains more frequently and efficiently. For that massive capital investment, the board is planning on placing a $3.5 billion bond measure on November's ballot.
Radulovich and other board members characterized the early labor agreement as an effort to avoid a labor dispute so workers and the board alike can focus on the necessary capital improvements.
To questions that the agreement was a "gimmick" designed to create public goodwill ahead of the bond measure's introduction, Radulovich said the infrastructure improvements need to happen regardless.
"Whether the bond passes or not, we're going to have a lot to think about in 2017," he said.
The contract guarantees there will be no strikes at least until 2021, but Murray said she has received criticism for not fighting for a no-strike clause in the labor agreement. To negotiate for such a clause could have created months of strikes itself, she said.
"Having the ability to strike is one of the most powerful tools that unions have and they are not going to give that up without a long, hard struggle," Murray said.
The state legislature would have to intervene to take away that right.