SAN FRANCISCO (9/14/97) -- In the San Francisco Bay Area, where each major daily newspaper ran at least 5 or 6 articles every day during the recent week-long BART strike, it seems unlikely that any aspect of that struggle could have gone uncovered. Yet there was an unreported story in that strike. In fact, the main story which could have led the public to some understanding of its causes went unwritten and untold.
Today the news media around the country are more interested than ever in covering unions and strikes. Unfortunately, the coverage of the BART strike is an almost classic example of how not to report on a labor dispute.
During the recently-concluded UPS strike, the media maintained a generally-impartial role, exploring the issues by talking to the strikers themselves. Because the public heard their voices, people gained a good understanding of the economic pain in working families caused by part-time jobs - the strike's central issue.
On the picketlines, the BART strikers repeated over and over their explanation of the economic forces which led to the confrontation. But in contrast to UPS, the voices of BART workers were generally absent from the media. Workers' insight into their own jobs, and the economic pressures behind the strike, was ignored.
The issues at BART were more complicated than those at UPS. They deserved more attention and more depth. But news stores endlessly repeated the same mantra of commuter anger over their loss of indispensable BART train service.
Of course people were angry over the inconvenience caused by the strike. But when people asked what caused the strike, and who was responsible, the incessantly-repeated answer was that BART overpaid workers were holding the Bay Area hostage to get an undeserved raise.
This was an oversimplification. It diverted public attention away from important facts.
BART workers are paid from the system's operating budget. In recent years, the district has attempted to keep that budget from growing, and even to transfer money out of it. The operating budget pays for system repairs and the salaries of BART workers. Salaries and operating expenses are being squeezed to ensure funding for new construction.
While holding the lid on operating costs, BART's construction budget has mushroomed. New lines have been extended, particularly into eastern Contra Costa County. New stations have gone up in Pleasanton and Pittsburg. Further extensions and stations are on the books.
These are enormously expensive projects. Like the gorilla in the closet, they have absorbed the bulk of the money in the system, and are poised to grab even more. Directors don't even know how they are going to fund some BART construction plans currently on the books.
New stations benefit upper middle-class commuters from eastern Contra Costa County. But in the urban stations in downtown Oakland, San Francisco, and Richmond, elevators and escalators are constantly inoperative and under repair. BART has become an excruciatingly frustrating system for seniors and the disabled, who rely on them.
Construction companies make large profits from the new projects. Rank-and-file strikers pointed out over and over again that 40% of the donations which fund the election campaigns for BART directors come from construction companies. Margaret Pryor, president of the BART board, has been charged by the Fair Political Practices Commission with election fundraising violations.
The extension of BART lines is critical to the development of vast new housing tracts in Tassajara Valley, Dougherty Valley, and other areas on the fringes of the cities of eastern Contra Costa County. The strike amply demonstrated that without BART service, there's no way for the prospective residents of these developments to get to work, other than on the freeway. Unlike bus systems of the inner urban core, there are no alternative public transit systems in the suburban fringe which can take commuters to their downtown jobs.
The Bay Area's powerful land developers have a big reason to ensure that BART's construction budget grows without limit, while the district holds the line on operating expenses.
This is a sure-fire formula for constant tension between management and workers, and for eventual conflict.
These economic pressures were combined with a two-tier wage system, which had experienced workers laboring beside each other, but at significantly different wages. Bitter discontent could easily have been predicted here as well.
When BART workers called for an end this two-tier system, they defended a principle most Americans believe in - equal pay for equal work. And when BART managers responded that this discriminatory system saved money, their response owed more to their loyalty to their construction plans than to their own workforce.
While the strikers themselves were vocal about these points, their unions made little effort to take their case to the public before the strike started. By failing to do so, they lost the chance to forge a powerful alliance between commuters and workers to defend the BART operating budget, and keep construction costs from driving up fares.
The settlement which ended the strike hasn't resolved the basic economic conflicts which led to it. They will surely lead to another fare increase, and may eventually cause another bitter labor conflict.
It is hard to imagine an alliance between unions and commuters in the wake of the strike's bitterness, exacerbated by the media coverage. But angry commuters and resentful workers have more in common with each other than they do with the system's present managers, and the powerful economic interests who back them.
In fact, only an alliance between them will save the system from another strike, protect the quality of BART service, and ensure that ordinary people can afford it.
david bacon - labornet email
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berkeley, ca 94703