Recently, my colleague and BART board president, Joel Keller, outlined his proposal for an advisory vote that would gauge public perception on banning BART worker strikes.
Keller's proposal calls for BART and its unions to seek arbitration to resolve negotiation impasse while prohibiting employee strikes and lockouts. He also proposes a well thought out and neutral approach for both parties to select a retired judge who would act as the arbiter.
The process would be final-offer arbitration, in which the selected arbiter would need to choose the entirety of one proposal or the other; not pick and choose parts of both or devise his/her own proposal. In theory, this ensures both sides be reasonable in the development of their contract proposals since it boils down to an all-or-nothing situation.
At a meeting last month some of my colleagues voiced skepticism about this initiative. For one thing, it would cost the district $2.1 million to have the advisory vote administered and it effectively would only result in a public opinion survey since the Legislature would need to act. In the unlikely event lawmakers did pursue such change in law there is no certainty that the arbitration design would be as neutral as proposed by Keller.
In sum, this effort could cost a lot, only to backfire with a union-biased arbitration design and diminished responsibilities of the board of directors.
My concern is that although this proposal would protect the public from disruption during labor negotiations, it would be at the expense of protecting the public from long-term financial expenses.
Arbitration inherently weakens the aggressiveness that either side can invest in during negotiations because both sides have to be conservative with their proposals so that they are received as "reasonable" by the arbiter.
Given how much work there is to be done to get BART's labor contracts to acceptable standards, I don't want to cripple our ability to be aggressive during future negotiations.
Some of my colleagues highlight how strikes disable some patrons' ability to get to work and other destinations. I, too, ran into patrons who were gravely inconvenienced by our workers going on strike last year. However, when I explained to them the grandiose perks that our workers receive, even these patrons were appalled and welcomed my tough stance. Of course the public doesn't want to be held hostage during future negotiations, but they also want to see notably more contract savings.
The real problem is the historic lack of a backbone from the board of directors and how quickly they cave when the threat of a strike is on the table.
Instead of endless baby steps to better employee contracts facilitated by an unknown arbiter, the board needs to stop rewarding bad behavior by caving to striking employees, grow a backbone, and support tougher contract changes.
I applaud Keller for trying to protect the public from future strikes, but his approach only necessitates negotiating that can result in less-than-desirable bargaining outcomes. For these reasons, I find his proposal to be a second-best solution to the board standing its ground by not caving during negotiations.
At the same time, it may be wishful thinking on my part to expect that pressure from you and me for the board to hold a tougher line during future negotiations will succeed.
It may be that Keller's proposal is as close to ideal that can occur.
I'd be interested to hear readers' opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zakhary Mallett is the District 7 representative on the BART Board of Directors.