Bay Area Rapid Transit Board Rejects Family Leave for Workers

Union leaders condemned the decision, but won't say whether they would go on strike again.
by Daniel Luzer Rapid Transit Board | November 22, 2013 AT 3:14 PM

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen

In the latest twist in BART's tortured labor negotiations, the transit agency's directors on Thursday risked another strike by rejecting a costly paid family leave provision that they say was mistakenly included in the final contract. Union leaders slammed the move but were mum on whether they would walk off the job for the third time since July.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors voted 8-1 to accept the contract only if the unions vote to approve a revised package without the family leave perk.

No deal, countered leaders with the Amalgamated Transit and Service Employees International unions, whose members already approved the contract with the leave. They don't buy the "mistake" argument and called the board's vote illegal.

"Our members didn't have the opportunity to pick and choose what parts of the contract they liked and what they didn't like," ATU President Antonette Bryant said.

The unions aren't yet saying how they will challenge BART and what that means for the 200,000 people who ride its trains every day.

Employees have been working under the terms of the old contract since it expired June 30. But with no labor agreement, they could walk off the job for a third time. Others suggest the unions could take BART to court.

"We will be discussing the options with our attorney, and we will be in discussions with our members," said SEIU Chief Negotiator Josie Mooney after the board's decision. "How we proceed will be made public once we have had some time to consider what options are available."

Public agencies hardly ever reject contracts agreed to by their own negotiators _ in whole or part _ after union members have ratified them.

But BART officials said the agency simply couldn't afford to live with this mistake.

The transit system estimates the paid leave provision would cost it between $5.8 million and $44.2 million over the four years of the contract, depending on how many workers take it. The lower figure is based on the number of people who took the unpaid version last year, while the higher is if a third of the staff signed up.

Even at the bottom of the range, the dollars would mean a substantial hike in what BART put on the table in the new contract. The agency puts the cost in increased compensation of the overall contract _ without the family leave clause _ at $67 million.

BART board Vice President Joel Keller, of Antioch, led the move to seek a contract without the offending provision, and seven of his eight colleagues ultimately voted with him.

If he becomes board chairman in December, as expected, he said he will also appoint a board subcommittee to investigate the agency's labor negotiations process.

Neither side got everything it wanted, but the bulk of the deal "is affordable, sustainable and fair," Keller said. "We ended on a sloppy note, and that is regrettable. This turmoil could and should have been avoided."

Only BART Director Zakhary Mallett dissented in the vote, saying the contract was too generous even without the family leave provision.

Before the board went into closed session shortly after 10 a.m. to discuss the contract, union members and others implored directors to ratify it with the leave provision.

"I implore you to live up to your agreement because you cannot imagine the difficulties you will experience ... and the devastation (rejection) will have on morale and the relationship between management and employees going forward," said Larry Williams, who was BART's chief labor negotiator from 1977-1997. "If you don't ratify this agreement, you ain't seen nothing yet."

United Public Workers for Action founder Steve Zeltzer accused the BART board of union busting and predicted the contract rejection would spur public employees throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and the state into action.

"If you reject this contract, you are telling every other agency that they can do the same, have negotiators come up with a deal and then say, 'The hell with it, we don't have to follow it,' " Zeltzer told the board.

Both sides agree the unions put forward the family leave provision in the spring, but the stories quickly diverge.

The agency says its negotiators repeatedly rejected the idea, but later a temporary employee erroneously prepared a tentative agreement document in July titled "Section 4.8: Family medical leave."

Eight people _ three from BART management and five from the unions _ would later sign the document that BART contends was mistakenly included.

BART staffers say they discovered the "mistake" during a document review Nov. 4, three days after the union members ratified the contract.

The unions dispute BART's account and insist the agency agreed to the provision and knew it was part of the contract.

As written, it provides workers at no charge six weeks of full pay for approved leave for baby bonding or to care for a sick or injured family member in addition to their vacation and sick leave.

By comparison, participants in the state disability program receive up to 55 percent of their wages, or $1,067 per week, whichever is less, for six weeks. Most employers require workers to first use accrued vacation and sick leave, and workers pay premiums for the insurance through payroll deductions.

(c)2013 Contra Costa Times