by Jamison Maeda
On July first, the fifth largest rail system in the US came to a halt as labor unions announced a strike. Management for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the employee unions failed to reach an agreement forcing over 400,000 daily commuters to find alternative transportation around the San Francisco Bay area in California. The last BART strike was in 1997 and lasted for 6 days. That strike gave workers the leverage they needed to negotiate a new salary and benefits package with management. However, despite great historical significance as protector of the working class, American labor unions are experiencing lower membership and finding they have less bargaining power.
The Regan administration of the 1980s encouraged employers to repress unions without legal consequences. Corporations tried to convince the public that union wages and benefits would prevent American manufacturing from being competitive in a global economy, though the success of German and Swedish manufacturing proved this to be false. Walmart, America’s largest retailer is well-known for its opposition to unions. Walmart has been accused of hiring union busters to discourage the formation of unions, closing stores and department which became unionized, and in 2005, a Walmart executive claimed he was paid for his help in an anti-union project in which employees were paid bribes in exchange for naming those who were trying to unionize.
A survey in San Francisco shows the BART strike is only supported by 11% of the public. Union spokespeople insist that this protest is more about safety issues than salary and that worker injuries have increased by 43% since 2009. Brenda Barros, a union member of SEIU Local 1021 says “…maintenance on the train is not done as much as it should be because staffing is cut back at the same time management is getting raises.” Striking workers picket with signs, and chant “What’s this about? Safety!” In addition to on the job accidents, over 100 BART employees have been the victim of brutal attacks. One of their requests is bullet proof glass in the attendant booths.
But hundreds of thousands of Californians have been significantly impacted, and the Bay Area economy is losing millions of dollars a day in lost productivity. BART management had been very active in informing the media that union salaries are as much as $62,000 a year with full benefit packages including significantly more time off work than many non-union jobs. This is more than twice the amount of low income working-class Bay area residents. However, BART has not been as vocal about management salaries which can be as much as $399,000 per year.
Though this strike is somewhat controversial, most Americans agree that labor unions brought about significant change regarding the rights and safety of the working class. America was highly over represented in workplace deaths in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The fatality rates of mining, railroad and manufacturing jobs was more than double that of the UK during the same time period.
One particularly tragic instance was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Due to lack of workers’ safety legislation, a New York garment factory fire killed 149 workers. Some were as young as 14 years old. Without any regulation, it was routine for sweatshop factory owners to lock stairwells and fire escapes to keep workers from leaving their post.
Three years later in an event known as the Ludlow Massacre, striking workers and their families at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company were attacked by the Colorado National Guard and other men employed by the company. More than 20 workers were killed on that day, 11 of them were children.
Even the least sympathetic Bay Area resident will agree that it is better to support the union members than return to the days of American sweatshops and massacres. History has shown that corporations will sacrifice safety and fair compensation in favor of profit.
Tina Santillan, a train operator said “We are working-class folk, and we work for the working-class people. The BART board is not in support of working-class people.”