All posts by Plum Wine

Holding the Line – Beyond the BART Strike: Land, Labor, and Wealth

In one of the highest profile labor struggles in the US this year, BART transit workers in the San Francisco Bay Area went on strike twice over wages, benefits, and working conditions. The issues behind the strikes and the impact on transportation highlight some labor and land use issues common to many urban societies.

A little background on the 2013 BART strike

In BART’s 2009–2013 contract negotiations, unions accepted over $100 million in cuts which expired in June 2013. Management’s proposal of additional cuts for 2013–2017 led to a strike in July 2013 and a second strike in October 2013 after management refused workers’ offer of binding arbitration. During this second strike, two people were killed by a train being run by management. This strike ended with both sides agreeing to a deal that kept worker compensation on par with inflation.

Inflation, the relentless wage cutter

Often in labor negotiations, management will frame labor’s demands as being huge raises, while labor will defend that they are just maintaining what they have. That’s because inflation requires labor to constantly fight for more money just to maintain a constant standard of living.

Inflation occurs when the amount of money increases faster than the production of goods and services. This is a deliberate policy on the part of the banks, as economic theory states that inflation is a useful tool for lowering wages, as wages tend to be “sticky” — in other words, hard to cut. Wages aren’t the only thing that matter – it’s also about dignified labor that treats workers as people with real human needs.

In good times, transportation workers fought at the front for better working conditions and pay. Now, with society running in reverse, they’re the rear guard against complete destruction of the middle class.

At BART, in addition to the issue of wages, two other issues were prominent – work rules that helped preserve predictable schedules, and paid leave that ensures that workers don’t have to choose between a paycheck and caring for sick family members.

As the service economy makes talent increasingly subjective, transit workers signal the importance of public sector jobs to the minority middle class. Private companies can hide discrimination in handshake hiring and secret salaries. The public sector guards equal opportunity with public compensation records.

It’s true the BART strike made life difficult for commuters and worsened air pollution. Unfortunately, victories don’t come from appealing to the ruling class’s morals. They come from having leverage over their economy.

The commuter system: a product of pollution, gentrification, and transit policy

In the beginning, people moved out of cities because of pollution: coal, chemicals, diseases from raw sewage. Even today, inner cities suffer the worst air pollution — now from ships and cars passing through.

Now the city is unaffordable. Extreme wealth inequality begets extreme hogging of housing. A three–apartment Victorian becomes a single–family house. Foreign wealth buys up empty U.S. apartments as revolution insurance. Whole buildings are used as vacation rentals, second homes, or speculative investments. New highrises often house fewer people than the modest buildings they replaced.

Waves of gentrification spill out from San Francisco to Oakland to the Central Valley and finally to Latin America, where displaced agriculture from the U.S. clearcuts rainforest and seizes indigenous land.

When someone takes up two seats on the BART, someone else has to stand, and if it gets crowded, another person gets left behind on the platform.

In today’s USA, with 5% of the people owning 62% of the wealth, the rich each ride their own private train car, everyone else stands, and billions get locked out on the other side of the border faregates.

Planning for BART began in the 1940s, with funding provided in 1959. The plan: make driving easier for the new suburbs. One year before, the Key System railway had closed, and its tracks on the Bay Bridge and East Bay streets were converted to car lanes.

Compared to the Key System, BART extended into then–rural Fremont and Walnut Creek, but had fewer stops in Berkeley and Oakland (10 versus 100s). Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to create parking lots around stations. The amount of housing within a 1–hour ride of San Francisco actually decreased.

Going further up the line, why are so many people going to work at all? The workweek remains unchanged since 1937, and average hours have gone up as two incomes become necessary to stay middle class. Productivity is up 400% but wages have only doubled. Where did all the work go?

Given that 62% of the wealth is owned by 5% of the people and that labor creates all wealth, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday is just serving the rich.

Likewise, behind the “average” American’s ecological footprint is this: The majority is living sustainably, while the elite is entirely responsible for the excess. It’s that extra demand that drives the use of less efficient resources like tar sands. Renewable energy already powers half of all U.S. homes — the poorer half — and could power it all today if everyone was middle class.

Where do we go from here?

To end the race to the bottom, the bottom needs to be brought up — and a lid put on the top. It’ll take higher minimum wages, universal healthcare, women’s empowerment, ending discrimination, restoring taxes on high incomes and inheritances, and more. It begins with not asking why some workers have it so good, but rather, why don’t we all?