As BART workers and management swap angry glares -- and commuters hold their breath four days before a possible strike -- it's interesting to note how some other states have avoided this kind of mess.
In Oregon and New York, legislators simply made transit strikes illegal.
New York's Taylor Law, which dates to 1967, empowers the state Public Employment Relations Board to resolve contract disputes and allows for fines and discipline against any participant in a work stoppage. A striking employee can be docked a day's pay and assessed a fine for each workday missed. A union that authorizes a strike can be slammed in the pocketbook. (When the Transport Workers Union of America briefly defied the law in 2005, it was fined $2.5 million.)
Oregon's state law ORS 243.738, enacted in 2007, prohibits employees of the mass transit district from striking or even honoring a labor organization's picket line. So far, no one has tested it.
So why doesn't California have such a law?
"We're looking into it," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
It's not exactly revolutionary thinking. Similar California law already prevents police and firefighters from walking off the job because their absence would jeopardize public safety. Shutting down BART may not imperil anyone's health, but the loss of train service would play havoc with Bay Area traffic and 200,000 commuters every day.
DeSaulnier cautions that no legislation is imminent. The wheels of progress grind slowly in Sacramento. But he has done considerable research into the matter, studying the Oregon and New York laws. Overcoming management's and labor's mutual distrust is one of the major hurdles.
Binding arbitration will likely be part of any bill -- both sides would be required to honor an arbiter's ruling -- but getting support for such legislation will require equitable treatment of both sides in any contract dispute.
Management will insist on a neutral party who looks at the entirety of the operation -- funds needed for employee benefits, capital expenditures, operations, maintenance and reserves -- before cutting up the pie. Employees will demand proof that the numbers are accurately reported. Bookkeeping accusations are part of the current dispute.
"Fact-finding," DeSaulnier called it. "If you had a third party come in and say, 'You only have so much for capital expenditures, so much in reserves and so much in revenue,' then you could go to binding arbitration."
Labor would be prohibited from striking; management from enacting lockouts. Commuters would have no interruption in transit services while contract terms were negotiated. It would be a welcome change from bellicose threats and public posturing.
Such a bill is a long way from vision to execution, of course, but DeSaulnier sounded as if he thought it was a trek worth making.
"Somebody who's very pro-labor was saying the other day that for 2,000 people to hold up 200,000 people who take BART every day just is wrong. Everybody is for the worker, but not when it imposes a bigger burden on other workers."
For now, it's back to the angry glares. Labor will push, management will push back and commuters will twist in the wind.
There has to be a better way. The senator thinks he knows what it is.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.