Now that BART management has succeeded in pushing negotiations into another strike and Bay Area Liberals are falling all over themselves bashing union workers and finding fault with everything union leaders say and do, I thought I’d offer a little more personal background on what it’s like to work for BART-why I wanted that job and why I got out.
The Promise of BART
At the time that BART first opened, it was known around Bay Area transportation circles, as one of the better places to work. And remember, AC Transit was not so bad in those days before public transportation budgets were repeatedly slashed. In order to find some experienced transportation workers, a deal was designed that offered bus drivers a way to move laterally without losing their seniority rights. It was known as the 13C clause. Union drivers were willing to train on the new system with all its quirks, tweaks, and serious problems that were yet to be worked out.
Because the system was so different from all others, there were weeks of classroom training and weeks of training on the line, including working in the middle of the night where operators got the chance to crank over rail switches in case of computer malfunction.
Initially, operators were called attendants because theoretically, the system was to be completely automated. But, the name was altered as soon as it became apparent that train operators would need to be able to make decisions and run in what is called “manual mode” pretty regularly in addition to moving cars in the train yards.
Fun in the Rain and Other Quirks
One of the things that happened almost every time it rained, became kind of a game for operators and made a job that could be excruciatingly boring more exciting if nerve wracking. When the tracks were slick, the trains often slid part of the way through the stations before coming to a stop. On the train console there was a big red emergency button that an operator could push to stop the train. An operator had to gauge exactly when to hit that button in order to keep all the cars within the station. Of course, the doors wouldn’t open automatically if riders were going to be thrust out into thin air. That meant the operator had to go back into the cars and, using a key, open every door that was within the platform. It put us behind schedule, was a big hassle and was not a popular event with the riders. So the operators learned how to stop the train manually until the system was finally adapted to the conditions of the track.
There were lots of other quirks that caused the system to be run in manual mode. The electrical switch boxes, called MUX boxes, would get hot in the summer, especially in the neighborhoods past the hills and would just quit working. The operator would have to move the train in manual mode while the muskboxes were packed with ice!
The problem with manual mode is that the trains are designed to work with a certain number of minutes of “headway”-the spacing between trains. When the train is not in automatic mode, the system cannot tell where other trains are and so the operator has to try to keep the spacing just right so the trains do not get too close to each other. This could be problematic when visual conditions are not perfect. Anything on the tracks that does not show “occupancy” on the computer may be hit and this happened once or twice when I worked there.
The 20 Minute Lunch Break and Work Rules Run Amok
Despite what the odious Zakhary Mallett says, when the train operator is not on the train, he or she is either waiting for a train turnaround on the mainline, waiting for a train to leave the yard, or moving cars about in the yard. When an operator is in the yard, he or she must become inured to the danger involved in hopping over the third rail through which run a thousand volts of electricity that if touched…well… you try not to think about that.
In terms of those pesky work rules that management keeps shooting its mouth off about, some of them are designed for safety and some just so the operator can function as a somewhat normal human being during her shift. For instance, when I first started, operators were given a twenty minute lunch break (they now get a whopping thirty minutes). At the end of your run, you might be waiting at the end of the line with your supervisor for your next train. You get a chance to use the bathroom and maybe chat for a minute or two till your next train comes in when you switch places with the other driver. Sometimes the trains are late or some type of problem develops on the line. Then your supervisor advises you that you just had your lunch period, but, of course, since you didn’t know it (nor did he) you hadn’t even opened your lunch bag. Off you went, no eating allowed on the train, and now you’re hungry but you don’t know when you’ll get a full fifteen or twenty minutes to eat. Of course, you carry a small piece of luggage with you wherever you go since you might start out in hot Concord and wind up cranking switches over in foggy Daly City. Don’t forget your parka!
After the frustrating experience of going without meals, I managed to write some language into our contract that required our supervisors to notify us before our lunch period was called or be required to pay us twenty minutes of overtime because we had not received a lunch break. I don’t know if that is one of the “antiquated” rules they want to change; but it is still no small thing to an operator to have to go without a lunch break in an eight hour (or more) day.
Fighting for the 8 Hour Day Again
Here’s something else that most non-transportation folks don’t know. Some drivers switched to BART just because of the eight hour day. Many transportation jobs involve split shifts. You go to work during the morning rush, are off for a number of hours and then back to work for the rest of your shift. You, typically, do not get paid for the total hours but for the hours your are on. These kinds of shifts can wreak havoc with living a normal life. In fact, being a transportation worker ofttimes means giving up on a normal life.
For instance, my first shift as a new operator with no seniority ran from 8PM to 4AM with Tuesday and Wednesday off. I envisioned the world as streaming in one direction while I trudged off in the other, alone. It’s difficult to have relationships with anyone who does not work in your field and for your agency (which might be why I ended up married to another driver.)
So, I opted for the Extraboard. Those of us on the Extraboard, gave up our miserable assignments in order to fill the ever changing shifts of others who were on vacation, sick, or disabled (a Kaiser therapist, my therapist, by the way, once noted to me that more people were coming in from BART than any other company enrolled with them. She was trying to encourage me to leave the job.) Normally, the practice was to give us a twelve hour turnaround so that we could commute (train yards are a distance from housing and some workers live in cities far from the yards they regularly check into), and even eat, sleep, and bathe. But every so often the management would get its collective panties in a twist and start ordering eight hour turnarounds. Any 4th grader can figure out how miserable and even unsafe that was for drivers.
Still BART operators and other workers felt themselves lucky to have a straight eight hour shift, albeit with mandatory overtime when there was a problem with the trains. Of course, it wasn’t luck, it was the work of union negotiations and it gave the workers the hope of leading a normal life.
The eight hour day is now up for discussion, or should be, according to management negotiators.
In fact, BART workers do feel lucky to make a real living wage with good benefits. These are precisely what this management, and I’m afraid, this board would like to take away. But there’s more at stake than some takeaways to so-called “well paid workers” which is a whole other discussion. A $70,000 income no longer even qualifies you for a mortgage or much else in this part of the world.
Ask yourselves why a young woman (as I was at the time) with college credits just shy of a degree, would want a blue collar job like that, wearing a uniform and working almost exclusively with men who really didn’t want me there. The answer is that, in those days, blue collar jobs were men’s jobs, men’s union jobs, and I was tired of the pink collar world where you were stuck in an office (horrors) and spent much of your small wages on stockings and other clothing you otherwise had no use for. I wanted to make some money so I could save for better opportunities and I wanted good benefits. I had also been a Yellow cab driver in San Francisco so I didn’t mind hard work, dirty work, unusual work. I wasn’t crazy about the harassment-something office workers also experience-but I was willing to put up with it for the other protections and benefits, at least for a time.
Be the First in Your Family
And this is the really important point in this story. The men and women I worked with came from working class backgrounds; and as many of you Bay Area liberals have so bitterly pointed out-most of them did not have any college credits, and never even thought they could buy a house, much less a new one in the burbs.
But many of them, probably most of them, succeeded in buying homes in what were then the less expensive outlying towns of Union City, Newark and Fremont. They bought new homes in new developments. They sent their kids to college, the first ones in their families to go, and some have now retired in a way that allows them to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to continue to support the communities and businesses where they live.
Don’t be a Crab
The Bay Area has always been a difficult place to raise a family and to have the confidence that you can continue to take care of your family in good times much less bad, but those public service jobs-transportation, teaching, healthcare, and municipal service-all these union jobs have empowered many women and people of color to raise their families, to start businesses, and to hope for a better life for their kids. We can’t allow ourselves to be divided, to scrabble like crabs in the proverbial barrel trying to get out while pushing others back in.
To paraphrase Joe Hill, don’t whine, organize. We can revive the promise of a golden California if we believe in each other and begin to work together. We did it before, we can do it again.