The second BART strike of 2013 enters Day 3 on Sunday, and a growing number of beleaguered commuters, business owners and politicians are asking whether state law should block BART and other public transit workers from walking off the job.
It's a hotly debated question that even some Democrats are rethinking in light of Friday's shutdown after months of contract talks abruptly ended last week without a deal. States including New York and Oregon forbid their public transit workers from striking, and some cities like San Francisco have it built into their own charters, but California law -- which does prohibit strikes by police and firefighters -- is silent on transit strikes.
Yet with stations shuttered, BART workers picketing and Monday's commute looming, calls to change that are heating up in the Legislature and on the campaign trail.
"I'm pro-rider, not anti-union," said Democratic Assembly candidate Steve Glazer, an Orinda councilman and political adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown who was at the Walnut Creek BART station early Friday morning asking commuters to sign his online petition urging the Legislature to ban public transit strikes.
Glazer won't say how many signatures he has collected since launching the petition last month, but said he got 4,000 just from when the BART strike was announced Thursday night through late Friday morning. When BART workers strike, "they're saying nobody else matters except for us, and that's not a message that's easily swallowed by Bay Area folks, including Democrats," he said.
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, in July said he was looking into a state law to ban transit strikes, as Oregon and New York already have. On Friday, he said what Glazer is doing "is popular, but the reality is more complex than that."
DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said he's interested in an idea advanced by Stanford Law Professor Emeritus William Gould IV -- who chaired the National Labor Relations Board in the Clinton administration -- to enact a law providing for arbitration and prohibiting strikes in public-transit disputes. "But I'm not going to do it if it has no chance of success, if both sides are against it," he said.
BART unions and management couldn't agree late Thursday whether part or all of their dispute should go to arbitration, leading to the strike.
BART management might believe public opinion is on its side, and it might be right. An Oct. 9 KPIX 5/SurveyUSA poll of 550 Bay Area adults who said they'd been following the BART negotiations found 76 percent opposed workers going on strike, with a large majority saying they were strongly opposed and only 12 percent saying they strongly supported a walkout. Of a larger sample of 800 Bay Area adults, 53 percent said they supported changing state law to ban strikes by public transit workers, while 38 percent said state law should be left alone.
Republican state lawmakers on the last day of this year's legislative session, Sept. 12, introduced Senate Bill 423, which would compel only BART's unions -- not all transit workers -- to honor the no-strike clause in their expired contracts. On Friday, they renewed their call urging Brown to call an emergency legislative session to act on the bill.
"Common sense dictates that if other provisions of their contracts, such as salaries and benefits, are being fulfilled, then the no-strike clause should also be honored while negotiations continue," Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Brea, and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, said in a joint statement.
"There are nearly 400,000 daily BART riders who can't get to work or school, and it doesn't have to be this way. We are ready to step in and take action, but the governor must act."
But Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said Friday that BART management and workers "can arbitrate right now and they should."
"An extraordinary special session, at this point, would not lead to the quick solution the people of the Bay Area want and deserve," he said.
State Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, agreed.
"We need a solution, not a political talking point,'' he said Friday.
Labor unions -- always a potent force in California's Democratic politics -- of course "will continue to support BART workers in their fight for a fair contract," Art Pulaski, the California Labor Federation's executive secretary-treasurer, said in a statement issued Friday.
Glazer said he started his petition knowing it's a heavy lift, yet "every day that the strike goes on, the political dynamic changes."
Dublin attorney Catharine Baker, a Republican candidate for the same 16th Assembly District seat Glazer seeks, issued a statement Friday urging Brown to call the Legislature back into session and urging lawmakers to pass the Republicans' bill to bar BART strikes. "Public service used to mean just that -- public service," she said. "It should not mean making the public miserable until you get what you want."
Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, another Democrat seeking the 16th Assembly District seat, didn't return a call Friday. But Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich, another Democrat in that race, said his fellow candidates are engaging in "political gamesmanship."
"For us who are running to create a story to try to make a name for ourselves is irresponsible," he said, noting none of the candidates has been privy to the negotiations. "To suggest a change (in law) during the course of something like this is, I think, inappropriate."
New York state: It enacted a law in 1967 that bars public employees from striking. When 33,000 New York City subway and bus workers went on strike in 2005 anyway, a judge fined the union $2.5 million and threw its president in jail for a few days.
Oregon: It enacted a law in 2007 making it "unlawful for any employee of a mass transit district, transportation district or municipal bus system to strike or recognize a picket line of a labor organization while in the performance of official duties."
San Francisco: The City Charter bans Muni workers from striking, as does those workers' contract lasting through June 2014.
Missouri: It forbids public employee strikes. Transit workers who threatened a strike against St. Louis' Metro system this year were ready to argue that they're not public employees because the state provides only a tiny fraction of Metro's funding. The parties are still negotiating.
Chicago: An Illinois law that prohibits transportation workers from striking because they provide an essential service hasn't kept Transportation Authority employees from threatening to strike a few times in the past decade.