The Living Wage, BART Protestors, and Charter Schools, a Blog for Friday the 13th, Oakland

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Today’s blog is just a Friday-the-13th-kinda-thing -lots of seemingly strange stuff happening in the Town lately. Since we don’t know yet what might come out of it all, keep your eyes open and proceed with caution.

For one, last Tuesday the City Council subcommittee for economic development, in the name of that very concept, offered to give away the wages of struggling Oaklanders, East Oaklanders, many of whom continue to survive against great odds. Here’s the story as I’ve gleaned it- a developer started working with the City way back when there was redevelopment funding to secure a nice commercial parcel for development in Desley Brooks district at Seminary and Foothill, and she worked with him to make it happen. Millions of dollars in tax credits later including an extra capital fund of  $1.2 million, the developer will be paying about $6000 for the property which already has an anchor tenant in Walgreens.

Now let that sink in, $6000 is less than a down payment on a condo in most of Oakland, but, of course, this corner of Oakland sits at the beginning of the retail desert that extends all the way to San Leandro (but don’t tell that to the hard working businesses on International.) Residents of that area were happy to hear that a full-service Walgreens, which sells all the stuff your average chain drugstore carries plus food, would come in and bring other needed tenants. In an area with limited walkability due to the lack of offerings and the level of crime, this project was very welcome.

Here it starts getting confusing-if you weren’t bewildered enough by all the monies that developers and corporations manage to secure in an era when Oakland had long ago shuttered its adult schools and reduced public safety staffing, etc, etc-we have two laws that govern wages for the lowest paid workers. From what I’ve read in social media, people are using them interchangeably but they are different.

Back in 1998 a living wage ordinance was passed so that businesses that received subsidies or contracts from the city would be required to offer a wage that a person could live on-although the actual wage needed for life in the East Bay these days now hovers around $25 an hour-rather than the $14.10 currently required. Our new minimum wage that was fought for and won by a coalition of advocacy groups and labor unions is only $12.25 per hour but it’s still the highest in the area, at least until nearby cities pass proposed increases that may match or surpass ours.

Back to the project, as it was nearing the point of lease signing  with Walgreens, etc, a city staff report surfaced that the developer wanted a waiver to get out of paying the required “living wage” as per the ordinance in order to secure Walgreens. The old fear rose up in City Hall among city staff and council members that, once again, East Oakland might lose out.

Oh, another wrinkle is that the living wage only requires $12.27 an hour, 2 cents more than the new minimum wage so no big deal, right? The higher wage, $14.10, only gets implemented if the employer does not offer healthcare or some type of benefits package. Some proponents assume that with Obamacare (the ACA) employees will get healthcare anyway but that is only if the employee can get 30 hours of work a week. You may have heard that many employers are not offering 30 hours, even cutting their hours, so they can circumvent the ACA, and there’s the rub.

When some of the advocacy groups that worked for Measure FF, the new minimum wage, found out that staff was recommending that the waiver be granted, they showed up at the Community Economic Development meeting and objected to giving waivers willy nilly, particularly to large corporate chains. But folks from the neighborhood-to be fair some of the advocacy groups members also live in the area-heard from Councilmember Brooks that they needed to lobby for the waiver in order to get the project built. They seemed to feel under attack from “outside groups” who are actually Oakland community organizers who see the very real threat of gentrification-development that makes a neighborhood more desirable, thus raising rents and prices, without the attendant increase in local income for residents who have persevered through the worst of times.

I turned on to watch the meeting expecting a battle royale between labor, anti-gentrification groups and the proponents of the project. What I saw was that a few folks from groups like EBASE (East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy), Causa Justa, and a union or two had shown up. They spoke in favor of the project and against the waiver and the need for Oakland residents to get something out of all the government tax credits, city staff time, and valuable property the chain was getting to utilize. At a time when the economic boom seems to be luring lots of businesses to Oakland, it seemed weird to assume Walgreens would not like to come, especially as there is so little competition in that area as pointed out repeatedly by the proponents.

I was surprised, chagrined really to see how quickly the council members on the committee, plus Noel Gallo, and Ms. Brooks asserted that, indeed, Walgreens would leave and the project would collapse. There was not even a peep of negotiating or possibly sunsetting the waiver (did I miss something?) So this waiver was granted to a giant corporation on the eve of the new minimum wage going into effect, not to a small business or struggling local entrepreneur, or non-profit doling out wages from federal grants, no a giant successful chain. The TV news got hold of that part of the story, the struggling small business part, and it gained traction, I’m guessing, on the evening news. IMG_20141201_212805

No one knows what really happened but maybe someone at Walgreens got wind of how it would look for them to refuse an extra $1.45 an hour in wages and declared that they did not intend to ask for a waiver of city laws. Now the project may go forward and the amount of the living wage will hinge on whether Walgreens avoids granting enough hours to its employees to enroll them in healthcare. I certainly hope the city is a better watchdog of its own laws in the future than it was last week, but everyone who worked on Measure FF needs to prepare themselves to continue the fight.

Now let’s talk about BART and civil disobedience for a minute.

The BART board voted just the other day to back off demanding retaliatory fines from the Black Friday 14 (however, that doesn’t mean the DA will have to abide by their resolution) but they maintained that the DA should go ahead with criminal charges. So, many people are still demanding that the District Attorney drop them. Or are they? If you look at social media, you will see that there is a difference of opinion among some of those folks calling themselves “supporters”of the Black Lives Matter movement.

They say that in the good ole days of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, people expected to suffer for their cause and were willing to “take their medicine.” But I was reminded while viewing Selma that the activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference saw jail and even beatings as part of heightening the contradictions, as pure PR that could demonstrate to the media and hence lawmakers, their plight in a way which had not been visible to them before.

No, folks, they didn’t go to jail because they thought they deserved it for disturbing the ugly peace of Jim Crow. They went as a tactic, and they used it because it worked. Sure they were willing to suffer for their cause. Some of them even suffered death. Are we harkening back to those days, and if so, why? Don’t we want to at least pretend that things have advanced in this country toward social and racial justice? Do we need more proof of suffering before we can implement change?

Whether disturbing the transport of the average citizen is a tactic we can get behind, I think well-intentioned people can disagree. But unlike BART Board Member Joel Keller’s manipulative op-ed in the Oakland Tribune, no, teachers weren’t trying to go to work that day, it was part of the Thanksgiving holiday-so remember that what they disturbed was the ultimate capitalist holiday, shopping day. Didn’t we tell you all to shop Oakland Grown that day anyway?

IMG_20141201_175233But, as to BART itself, though they have made improvements, it is still difficult to forget, as someone said, a movie, a real life tragedy,  was made about BART called Fruitvale Station. BART police and their supporters didn’t care about killing a young man and brutalizing others, and they certainly weren’t concerned about whether folks were able to catch the train home from work at that point.

And I can’t forget that this board cavalierly forced their union workers into a lengthy contract battle during which many average riders struggled to get to work on a regular basis, because BART’s GM didn’t think that the people who do the actual work should be able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. For many BART workers of color those union contracts allowed them and their families to be the first generation to enter the middle class. Don’t forget also that at least two workers died directly due to that recent struggle.

So, to me, when community service is suggested as part of their penance for that short disruption, I say that is their community service-what they are already doing. The Black Friday 14 and the Black Lives Matter organizers are taking steps to bring their community together to protect themselves and prevent further abuse by authorities and they are doing so in a well-organized, peaceful and disciplined manner. If BART wants to make itself a target of continuing unrest, well, they’re doing it just right.

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I’ll just throw this issue on the pyre. If you want to see a large unwieldy government bureaucracy that is much less transparent and seems to produce less for its constituents, look not further than the Oakland Unified School District. And, no it’s not about not allowing charter schools to loosen that up, that ship has sailed since the Oakland district has likely authorized more charters than other cities its size. It’s about whether Oakland families and taxpayers will have a coherent public system or whether charters will swallow the entire system.

If you think schools run by organizations not beholding to citizens, parent committees, unions or even the kids who need change the most, can do a better job, then turn our system over to charter organizations altogether. But, on second thought, please don’t. Happy Friday the 13th! IMG_20141201_213625

Don’t Whine, Organize!

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.

Whose Strike, My Strike

I’ve been told by progressive friends and pols that it’s not really union busting if the union is left intact. But now we know according to Darwin BondGraham of the East Bay Express, BART’s Lead Negotiator Has a History of Illegal Behavior, that the board that we voted for did knowingly hire a negotiator who makes it his job to, “make permanent the pay and benefits rollbacks that workers have endured in recent years,” according to BondGraham’s research.

How many times have I read this past week- “I’ve always been a union supporter but”-BART train operators make a lot of money or…they should have to pay some of their retirement costs or… health care has gone up or, the best and most astounding-unions have too much power nowadays!

Yeah, unions aren’t perfect. I was a train operator back in BART’s early years, and I can tell you that the unions weren’t any more welcoming than management was to adding women to that workforce. I took that job precisely because it was a traditionally-male job with good pay and benefits that the pink collar world did not offer. Before that I was a cabdriver in San Francisco. It was union but very loosely organized and without the kind of security that BART offered.

Transportation is a strange type of work. Your hours are so outside those of 9 to 5 folks that you soon lose connection with that workaday world and most of the people in it. Eventually, that and the stress of being one of the first women in that job category plus the lack of job satisfaction led me away from it.

Since then I have been a teacher in many public and one private school. There are lots of poor excuses for why teachers make less than other professions, professions where you get on-the-job training, not on-your-own-time, on-your-on-dime-training, but that’s another discussion for another time-as a friend of mine used to say. I was also a city council aide when it had no job protections-I mean none, but it is now a part of IFPTE, Local 21. My experience as a city council aide was one of the reasons that the union was organized by other aides.

So back to BART, or back to unions and the point of supporting one of the only remaining institutions standing between us and the New Feudalism, the new indentured servitude, the sharecropping that we now call work, the unpaid internships, the low paid fellowships, the temping, and, not to be left out, the sort of pay we get when we work for non-profits with their tiny margins and gaping needs for unpaid extra hours. Here’s to contracting and free-lancing, the New American Nightmare of Lifelong Austerity, the Permanent Recession OR here’s to organizing and fighting together for real benefits. Here’s to a dignified retirement.

Yeah, maybe you’re not in a union since most of the above luckless “careers” don’t have them. But the union movement fights to get them for you, and they continue to fight to stanch the loss of workers’ rights, all workers. They are all that stands between us and the triumph of oligarchy.

Some unions may have become big and unwieldy but, public sector unions especially, are now made up primarily of women, immigrants, and people of color who know the struggles of folks who never had much power or wealth. Hey, maybe that’s one reason they get less respect than they used to-they no longer look like the average 1 percenter.

Back to union-busting, the real growth industry. Is it union busting to ask people to pay a little more of their family’s healthcare costs or their retirement benefits? It can’t be union busting then to offer a wage increase in return for an increase in the cost of pensions and doctor’s visits. Nah, don’t call it union busting then-just call it union neutering.

Why would you offer something with one hand while trying to take away a bit with the other, maybe you’ll get a little raise but in the process you’re giving up some security in the future. Why do you think they do it? Is it some kind of shell game? Yes, it is. It’s a game that says, you once had the benefits of a dignified retirement but we’re betting we can chip away at that by offering a few pennies to spend right now since you were so accommodating when times were hard. Why, you even worked harder for less pay.

Okay, so maybe BART needs that money, that surplus I’ve read about, to buy more cars and upgrade the system so many of us depend upon. Then I want the BART board to come out and tell us that, explain to us exactly what the options are, hold public meetings and let the taxpayers, the riders, the workers among us who believe in solidarity for our own sakes, what is at stake.

Don’t hire creepy law-breaking negotiators whose job it is to obfuscate, delay and frustrate the union folk, our neighbors. People don’t strike because they enjoy losing days at work.

I’m calling on Robert Raburn and Rebecca Saltzman, folks I’ve put my trust in, to come to us and lay BART’s cards on the table. I’m certainly going to remember Zachary Mallett, should he ever come before me for an endorsement, for denouncing the ATU and the SEIU workers who gave back in hard times. And I thank James Fang for walking the picket line and realizing that it was a mistake to leave the board out of negotiations. We elected a progressive board and we expect them to act like one. Trust us, your constituents, to see the wisdom in your decisions by letting us see you make them.