Inadvertent mistake? Give me a break.
The inclusion of a previously unpublicized, costly new leave payment in the BART labor deal that ended last month's four-day strike wasn't just a simple oversight as the district asserted Friday. It resulted from the sloppiness, laziness, secrecy, indifference and public deception that permeated BART officials' approach to the contentious negotiations.
Nevertheless, the provision that offers six weeks' full salary to workers who take family leave must not stand. BART board members -- who are scheduled to vote Thursday on the contract settlement -- should reject the whole thing if the unions refuse to remove it.
The provision would be nearly twice as generous as the standard California family leave program benefit, which offers payments equal to about half of an employee's salary. It would affect workers taking care of a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner, or bonding with a new child.
It would provide yet another high-priced benefit for workers who already pay little toward their health care and only agreed to contribute to their pensions when the transit district ponied up more salary to offset the cost. The cost of the leave would add millions of dollars to the four-year contract, which already has blown the budget the cash-strapped district set for negotiations.
District officials have no one but themselves to blame for this mess. The dispute doesn't center on a few mistaken words. An entire two-page document is at issue.
BART officials say that the generous family leave payments were proposed by the unions during negotiations and rejected by BART. However, they say, the clerical staff that the district hired for the negotiations erroneously typed up the union's original proposal. The two-page family leave agreement then was included with other documents shipped to union negotiators for signature in August, and later signed by three -- not one, but three -- BART representatives.
One, Paul Oversier, assistant general manager for operations, told me he doesn't remember signing it, but he doesn't dispute that he did. Did he read it? "Not closely enough, obviously," he said, contritely.
From the start, BART officials have lacked attention to critical detail. Going into negotiations, they should have established two things: how much they could afford, and what would be fair and comparable compensation.
On the latter point, they dropped the ball. For example, it was well-known that BART train operators' hourly wages ranked among the best in the nation. But the district never conducted a survey of other major metropolitan areas to determine how BART total compensation -- salary and benefits -- compares.
Instead, they went into the negotiations without critical data. Consequently, they had no meaningful metric and lacked a potentially strong argument for a less-generous offer.
They gave away the store, ending up with a four-year deal that netted workers an 11.7 percent increase, after subtracting their increased contributions to pensions and health care.
BART insists that the cost of the package, without the disputed leave benefit, will be $67 million. What they still refuse to acknowledge is that they cooked the books to come up with that number, to make the deal look less costly than it actually is.
At the same time, they have exaggerated the benefits of the contract. District officials argue that new language will enable them to improve technology and switch equipment without union approval. That's not so. If the unions balk, changes must be submitted to an arbitrator, who also could force the district to raise compensation in the bargain.
Unfortunately, district directors parrot management's misinformation. That's because at least some of them have neither bothered to look into how the savings were calculated nor read the new contract.
For that matter, as we now know, the district's top managers and attorneys hadn't carefully read the contract either. It wasn't until Nov. 4, two weeks after the end of the strike and three days after union members ratified the deal, that they discovered the family leave provision, Oversier said. "In a different environment, this is not more than a clerical error."
Of course, the unions don't consider this an error, and there has been nothing amicable about these negotiations. That's why BART hires high-priced attorneys and managers to protect the interests of riders and taxpayers.
Unfortunately, they act like BART is their own fiefdom. Until Nov. 4, the district had refused to publicly release the contract documents. One can't help but wonder if full public disclosure during the negotiations might have revealed the disputed provision earlier.
Staff writer Thomas Peele contributed to this column. Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/BorensteinDan.