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Union Bashing in San Francisco: The BART Strike

California’s Bay Area, home to San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Marin, and points surrounding, is widely considered to be one of the most liberal areas of the United States—so much so that conservatives attempting to evoke the spectre of wild communists running amok refer to ‘San Francisco values.’ It’s the cradle of the free speech movement, a disability rights powerhouse, host of the Asian and Pacific Islander student movement. It’s the place where you find the Castro, Nuclear-Free Zones (Berkeley), the Folsom Street Fair, and massive anti-war protests that clog the streets in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (which is lit up in rainbow colours for gay pride).

Regarded by the rest of the country as either a liberal paradise or a hotbed of radical elements preparing to take over the country and impose free love, universal health care, and kittens upon everyone, the Bay Area occupies an iconic position in the US landscape.

It’s also a position that is, in many ways, utterly false. While all of the above are true, the Bay Area is also home to the booming tech movement, a huge homelessness rate including a very high rate of LGBQT homeless people, and growing class stratifications as cities become gentrified. The march of the yuppies and the hipsters is forever changing not just the Castro and the Mission in San Francisco, but it’s also creeping over into Oakland, where formerly low-income neighbourhoods primarily inhabited by people of colour are turning into hipster playgrounds.

This is, after all, the place where police shot Oscar Grant.

Over the summer of 2013, the Bay Area’s allegedly liberal values have been put to the test by widespread labour actions on the part of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) employees. Almost 400,000 people ride BART trains daily, making it a key component of the Bay Area’s transit plan, but the employees who work for the company weren’t enjoying many of those vaunted ‘San Francisco values.’ They went to the table with the union to negotiate better contracts for their personnel, and were soundly rebuffed by BART officials‐who took the time to hire an infamous unionbusting PR firm and ‘negotiator’ for the proceedings, making it clear that they were playing to win, not to negotiate, right from the start.

As negotiations stalled, BART union leadership eventually called a strike, and BART employees forwent strike pay in order to fund the union’s organising, knowing that they couldn’t logistically fight the BART administration with the funds currently available in the coffers while also offering strike pay. As the strike progressed, tensions exploded in the Bay Area; BART’s PR firm was working overtime to demonise the workers, the union, and labour organising in general, even while transit organisations scrambled to make up the gap in available transit made by the disappearance of regular BART service.

And the true colours of the Bay Area came out. Instead of flocking to the street in droves to support the union, which one might expect from a highly liberalised community, much of the Bay Area was disgusted and infuriated by the labour action, and made no secret of it. Complaints piled up everywhere from message boards to major newspapers, while helicopter rides were offered to well-heeled techsters who wanted to fly above it all and avoid the drama of trying to ride makeshift public transit. (Many techsters, of course, ride the fleet of private buses like those maintained by Google and Yahoo! for their employees, a practice with consequences that are highly damaging to communities and public transit at large. They weren’t affected by the strike, but it certainly didn’t stop them from complaining about ‘entitled’ BART employees.)

This supposedly radical, liberal community enthused about rallying around the underdog, getting engaged with social justice, and fighting the man swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, and quite happily turned on the union, biting the train conductors that moved it around. The ground personnel who kept BART running on a daily basis were turned into pariahs by the media and by cultural agreement, despite the fact that all they were asking for was a little dignity and respect.

Meanwhile, the big bosses at BART engaged in bad faith activities like giving their negotiator a vacation right before a planned strike action, making it impossible for union representatives to get into meetings to avert a strike; yet, when the inevitable strike occurred, BART claimed that the union hadn’t been willing to negotiate. And, of course, while BART workers on the ground struggled to make ends meet without their income during the strike, the BART bosses continued to take home fat paycheques, enjoying the subsidies BART is granted without the accountability and responsibility they seemed to demand from their own personnel.

In recent years, an ongoing national conversation has surrounded the supposedly withering labour movement in the US, targeting its lack of relevance, inability to connect with new labour systems, and lack of ability to attract and retain membership. It’s even come complete with the one union campaign to freshen up the image of the movement in an attempt to appeal to younger people in the US who weren’t born into a union culture. In direct contrast to this alleged decline, labour activists and those working in solidarity are on the ground across the country: they’re fighting to keep the last hospital in the Rockaways open; to protect the rights of port workers in Seattle; to prevent teacher firings and school closings in Chicago; to protect housekeepers in California.

The United States has become a nation of freelancers, multiple part-time jobbers, and people struggling to make ends meet with limited resources and even more limited tools for survival. It has become a country, in other words, where basic rights such as fair pay, equal treatment, and benefits have become controversial, viewed suspiciously as luxuries that are only available to the wealthy. As illustrated by the war on public employees, this has had devastating consequences for labour in America, where people would rather attack mail carriers and teachers for crying foul when their pensions are raided than go after the fat cats of the 1%, who live above the fray.

On the ground, the concept of a middle class is vanishing while the lower and working classes eat themselves, which is, of course, exactly what those in positions of power and control desire. The BART strikes and the public reaction to them are a stark and sobering illustration of what decades of careful machinations have wrought: rather than rallying behind labour, residents of the Bay Area are bizarrely attacking workers, filling hipster coffeehouses with their complaints about the massive inconvenience of the strike with no thought as to the massive inconvenience posed by not making fair wages. While working as a public employee may involve public service, it’s not charity work: it’s a job.

The Bay Area, like New York, like Chicago, like many other US cities, is in a state of very unpleasant transition. The cost of living is skyrocketing as newcomers (and new money) push the boundaries of their neighbourhoods further and further, eating up older, established, and traditionally poor communities. The low-income residents of these areas are being driven further and further out (many commuting in on those self-same trains to get to work because they can no longer afford to live in the City itself), as gentrification sweeps through and devastates these communities.

What was once white flight has turned into a school of circling great whites descending on low-income and working class neighbourhoods, smelling blood in the water and preparing to take the first opportunity to tear them apart. The consequence is a radically different look and feel in these communities, but also a huge cultural shift, because with wealth comes a sense of entitlement, particularly when people are settled on ground that was previously occupied by a low-income community that fought hard to retain its character and traditions. Determined to defend their ground against all comers, the new residents turn vicious in their campaigns to eliminate unwanted residents and sights.

The white yuppie, yippie (hippies turned yuppies), and hipster communities spreading their tentacles across the Bay Area and sinking them in deep were offended by the idea of the BART strike, and made their feelings known loud and clear. They protested the very idea that actual human beings, real workers, people, were involved in the remarkably efficient and smooth running of the mass transit system, and were enraged that those people might want something different in life than a kick while down and a constant struggle on insufficient wages. As the cost of living the City rises, many government employees are finding their existing salaries woefully insufficient to meet their needs; the BART union isn’t the first or the last to strike back, fighting to protect its members, but also highlighting the huge cultural shifts that are occurring in the Bay Area.

This is a region where people like to fancy themselves bohemian or ironically poor before eventually graduating into full yuppiedom. A place where signs of true poverty are distasteful and not to be tolerated, and where the community is growing more and more homogeneous. The men of ACT UP who catapulted the AIDS crisis into the national consciousness would never have been able to do that in the cleaned-up, sanitised, yuppie-ised, hipster Castro of today.

And thus it is perhaps unsurprising, although bitterly enraging, that somehow the BART workers have become the demons here, rather than the architects of the public relations campaign intended to demonise them, rather than the officials exploiting them, rather than the system that feeds subsidies into major corporations through BART and expects nothing in the way of taxes in return. In the framework of entitlement embodied by Bay Area living, those who have the least are the greatest public enemy, and those who have the most are subject to the least critical examination.

After one strike threw the Bay Area into an uproar, workers eventually returned to work, even as the union had been fighting at the bargaining table to get what they needed, and deserved. To describe what was happening behind closed doors as ‘negotiations’ is perhaps too generous—it was more akin to watching a wolf slaughter a lamb. When the BART union threatened a second strike to create leverage in negotiations (the lamb darts away, attempting to survive the night), it was still willing to sit at the table until the last possible minute to avert a strike action. The media followed the situation closely, with headlines threatening looming disaster if the union wasn’t willing to back down (no mention, of course, of give on the part of BART officials).

Ultimately, BART officials got Governor Jerry Brown involved, successfully ending the threat of strike with a stop order that left the union powerless and exposed, with the most powerful weapon in its arsenal neatly stripped from it by executive fiat. Such actions are reminiscent of the heyday of unionbusting in the US; one expects to see armed thugs attacking union members next, interrupting meetings and demonstrations with shows of brutality in an attempt to shut them down. Perhaps this is the future we have to look forward to as unions go to bat on behalf of their members.

The truly disgusting thing about this naked and unabashed attack on organised labour in California?

Many people in the Bay Area celebrated it.