BART workers, striking an unfamiliar note

Published by rudy Date posted on October 22, 2013

Once again, hundreds of thousands of Bay Area commuters face a perilous commute stemming from a paralyzed transportation system. The culprit? Another bargaining impasse between workers and management at the region’s commuter rail system, BART. The Bay Area’s congestion is a daily headache for many even when the BART trains are all operating, and thus made all the more miserable – and costly – with much of the rail system idled. As one resident recently told the New York Times, the strike is “inconvenient for the masses.”

But inconvenience is the point. A strike that inconveniences no one but the workers involved is guaranteed to fail. Why should management settle if it doesn’t face pressure from its customers, or, in this case, passengers? Strikes, especially effective ones, have always been inconvenient – even to the masses – but what they had in the past that they lack today is a familiarity with average Americans.

Strikes in the United States were once extremely common, with millions of Americans participating in a work stoppage each year. Millions more had a family member or friend walking the picket line, people who could explain the issues involved and the reasoning behind the action. In the post-World War II years, roughly 1 in 20 Americans walked picket lines annually. Some years the ratio rose to close to 1 in 10. Even as late as the 1970s, hundreds of large strikes – strikes involving 1,000 or more workers – shook the economy every year.

Despite a labor force that has grown dramatically over the past half century, the number of work stoppages has plummeted. In 2009, for example, there were only five large strikes in the United States. And while the number has ticked up a bit more recently, it remains at historic lows. The fraction of the workforce participating in strikes each year is now miniscule. Put simply, strikes like the ongoing BART dispute rarely occur anymore, and thus the ones that do feel to many Americans all the more unreasonable and inconvenient. Over a half century of declining union memberships means that fewer and fewer Americans are even aware of what a union is, let alone what unions once did – such as strike, and strike often. Among these unorganized workers, the little they do know of unions is that unionized workers’ pay and benefits often exceed their own. Decades of wage stagnation and growing economic instability has helped foster suspicion toward these organized workers who seem to be playing by different rules. “Why should they have what I don’t?” has become a common question among the millions of unorganized workers lacking union protections.

But while strikes – and the unions that organize them – have largely disappeared from workplaces across the nation, the issues that motivate them have not. In the case of BART employees, “what they have” includes a middle-class wage, a generous employer-provided health insurance plan, and a pension. It also includes some semblance of control over work schedules, allowing for the type of predictability that is necessary to balance work and family responsibilities. These are exactly the qualities of life once taken for granted by middle-class Americans, organized or not. And these are exactly what employers have jettisoned in an increasingly successful quest to save on labor costs and maximize profits. What unions once did was push back against these employer efforts. And what strikes once did was convince employers to take unions seriously.

These strikes of decades past were often offensive tactics used by unions to win large concessions at the bargaining table. Today’s stoppages – rare to begin with – are usually defensive, aimed at preserving the status quo in contract stipulations or limiting the concessions sought by management. Here the BART strike is typical: the unions have already agreed to increase employee contributions to their healthcare and pension plans, and are aiming to hold the line on scheduling, safety, and other work rules. This type of concession bargaining has been going on for decades, and as a result many contracts for union members are beginning to resemble those of their non-union peers. Those asking “Why should they have what I don’t?” may not need to worry much longer.

The decline of the strike in the United States has enormous benefits. It keeps production humming and passengers moving. It saves the economy millions in lost wages and declining profits. It makes daily life more convenient. But there is a cost to such a convenience. The issues at the heart of the BART impasse weigh on the minds of millions of average Americans today, organized or not. Reliable work schedules, decent pay, affordable healthcare, and a comfortable retirement – not only do these conditions comprise the very definition of a middle-class life, they are, and have always been, contested. Without the threat of a strike to get employers’ attention, the contest has become increasingly one-sided. –Jake Rosenfeld,

Month – Workers’ month

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