The BART board of directors has kept their reasons for selecting Veolia’s Thomas Hock as their lead negotiator a secret in spite of growing outrage from the train system’s workforce who call Mr. Hock a “union buster.” The unions are now demanding that Hock be fired and that the board retreat from its position to take away pay and benefits from their members. Still it’s not clear what the board’s strategy has been and why it hired Hock.
Communications that BART’s directors have had with one Richmond city council member seem to indicate, however, that BART’s management selected Hock to take actions that they were unprepared, or unwilling to undertake themselves.
On May 21 Richmond council member Jovanka Beckles wrote BART board member Zakhary Mallett (who represents Richmond on the BART board) to inquire about the hiring of the Veolia lawyer Hock to lead BART’s labor strategy. Beckles express concern bordering on opposition to this move:
“I understand that the BART Board is paying $400,000 to Thomas Hock, VP of Labor Relations at Veolia who has a reputation for union busting and discrimination,” Beckles wrote. “I would like to know how the Board justifies this expenditure and this approach in dealing with our public employees who are also residents of the region.”
Mallett, in a response to Beckles said he unsuccessfully attempted to contact the council member by phone, according to copies of the e-mails supplied by Beckles. He responded ten days later via e-mail:
“Due to the nature of your inquiry, BART staff is not comfortable having an email discussion on the matter; a verbal discussion is preferred.”
Two days after the four day strike ended Mallett told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross that his goal was to drive down the workers’ wages. “If someone is making $1,000 an hour for a job that can be done for $20 an hour, then they don’t need a raise,” said Mallett.
Mallett’s hyperbolic characterization of BART employee compensation was far off the mark, however. The average BART employee (including management and executives like general manager Crunican who earns $320,000 a year) is $83,000. Hourly that’s about $40. Many BART workers in fact already make Mallett’s prescribed $20 an hour.
Beckles tells me that without further explanation from BART’s management the selection of Hock appears to her a reflection of a concerted strategy to break the unions. “It seemed clear that in selecting [Hock], BART management was planning for a strike,” said Beckles.
“BART is currently at a critical juncture in its 40-year history,” wrote Radulovich. “While enjoying record ridership, we also face enormous reinvestment needs that will define whether we thrive or deteriorate in the decades ahead.”
The BART system’s regressive funding structure and lack of revenue for maintenance and expansion is essentially the root cause of the conflict between the workers and BART board, an otherwise mostly progressive collection of politicians, a majority of whom were elected with support from the unions. BART has too little funding to upkeep the system and expand it, and therefore has been stretching funds used to operate the system, including worker pay and benefits.
In conclusion Radulovich explained the board’s rationale for why they have chosen to go on the offensive against the unions and seek concessions in spite of the improving economy:
“BART workers do not pay any portion of their pension costs and they pay less than 5% of their medical costs. Recently at the bargaining table, you asked your workers to share a greater portion of responsibility for these growing costs. This year, we are asking the same from BART workers. In a recent poll, 72% of the residents of the three-county BART district agreed that workers should assume some of the costs of their pension and health care packages.
In these times of shrinking resources, none of us has a budget which is robust enough to compensate public employees in the manner that they desire and deserve. Hard choices are the rule of the day. We are making progress at the bargaining table, and appreciate your interest and support as we work to resolve these issues fairly and equitably.”
Beckles tells me she thinks this stance will lead to another strike.
“I am not close enough to the negotiations to know how they are going,” said Beckles in an e-mail. “I would hope that there can be a settlement that avoids a strike and is fair for BART’s employees because it will set a standard of good wages for other contracts and other workers. I do not think that is likely if the management negotiators keep trying to break the unions.”