Monday, August 17, 2009


WHEN AMALGAMATED Transit Union workers strike Monday morning, bringing BART to a halt and tying up Bay Area traffic, and then seek public sympathy, don't feel sorry for station agent Tiffany C. Li.

For the most part, her job requires her to sit in a booth watching the fare gates and answering patrons' questions. She's required to have a high school diploma. Last year, she earned $115,053.

And don't worry about train operator Ron Gadola. He is supposed to make sure his train doesn't run into the next one on the track, to announce stations as they're coming up, and to look out the window at each stop to make sure everyone is aboard. He, too, needs a high school diploma. Last
By the numbers

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year, he earned $136,330.

Both jobs have base salaries of about $63,000 a year. A BART survey found that, when you consider that they only work 37.5 hours a week and that BART pays both the employer and employee contributions to their pensions, their base salary makes them the highest paid train operators and station agents in the country — even after adjusting the data for the higher cost of living in the Bay Area.

That would be bad enough. But it's only part of the compensation for the workers who insist they're being asked to sacrifice too much and will be leading the walkout Monday. The other key factor is overtime — out-of-control overtime. Thirty-one of about 300 station agents last year earned over $20,000 in
overtime; Li topped the list at $41,000. Of roughly 400 train operators, 115 earned more than $20,000 in overtime and eight exceeded $50,000 in OT. Gadola led that list at $62,000 — just for overtime.

Clearly something is very wrong here. And BART officials know it. That's why they insisted on significant work rule changes in the contracts they negotiated with union leaders, changes that should reduce the need for overtime. Changes that workers in the other BART unions approved but that ATU employees rejected. Little wonder: For its size, ATU is by far the biggest beneficiary of overtime.

ATU is also the union that represents the BART workers who sit in a tower in front of computer screens directing train yard traffic. As I reported in June, those "foreworkers" earn base pay of roughly $65,000-$84,000 a year. But once overtime, shift differentials and other compensation are added in, most foreworkers add 50 percent to their base salary and a dozen last year more than doubled their pay, with total income of, in one case, as much as $218,621.

Be it station agents, train operators or foreworkers, ATU members are sucking up the OT, averaging about $15,750 per person. Much of it can be blamed on inflexible labor rules that require more work hours than necessary.

For example, train operators, are entitled to 10-minute breaks at the end of every run, even at the end of six-minute shuttle trips between the Millbrae and SFO stations. That's right: six minutes of work, 10 minutes of rest.

For example, union leaders are entitled to paid time to conduct union business. According to BART figures, ATU members have averaged 24,000 hours a year on union business, for which other workers had to backfill.

For example, once a station agent starts a workweek, he can't be moved to a station more than five stops away, nor to any station on another line. That means that when there are special events, like a ballgame at the Coliseum, other workers have to be brought in on overtime to guide the crowd.

Clearly, what's needed is systemic change. With BART on the financial edge, inefficient work rules must be altered. That's what BART management has been trying to do with this latest round of negotiations.

The roughly 1,450 mechanics, janitors, clerks, track workers and inspectors of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 understand the problem. They voted overwhelmingly to approve a four-year contract that included limits on medical benefits, a salary freeze that included modest lump-sum payments during the final three years and — significantly — cost-saving work-rule flexibility.

No longer will it take two people to change a train seat — one for the back, one for the bottom. No longer will it take two janitors to care for a station — one inside, one outside. No longer will the transit agency be required to bring in unnecessary levels of maintenance workers on holidays.

But ATU, which represents about 865 workers, refused to ratify a similar deal. Clearly they don't like giving up salary increases for four years. But what's also at stake here are outdated, inefficient work rules that are driving the transit district to the financial brink.

As we've seen during more than four months of negotiations, the longer ATU can stall the process, the more overtime its members can drain from riders and taxpayers. That alone was justification for the BART directors' decision Thursday to unilaterally impose a contract on ATU. And if that means putting up with a strike, so be it.

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