Was Management to Blame for Employees’ Deaths?

Two unions—SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1021 and ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) Local 1555—went on strike against BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on Friday, October 18, after a week of marathon bargaining sessions broke down without a settlement.

There was a point in negotiations, before the SEIU and ATU were reluctantly forced to pull the plug, when it looked like a compromise was possible. But BART management, like so many predatory companies in the U.S., insisted on doing its “copy-cat” number, demanding severe and unacceptable give-backs from the union.

The conventional wisdom governing these tactics is that because America’s unions don’t have anywhere near the public support they used to have, now is the perfect time to go to work on them, to strip them of provisions that took years to accrue. And that’s exactly what BART was trying to do.

Of course, the public is going to be furious, given how disruptive the strike is expected to be. Commuters who depend on BART for their daily transportation are going to be left to their own devices. Unfortunately, because BART carries about 400,000 round-trip passengers each weekday, it’s going to be a god-awful mess.

But SEIU and ATU members are strong and unified. Why? Because they and they alone (not the public, not the media, not the politicians) know exactly what sort of stunt BART is trying to pull. BART management is going after all they can get because they believe the time is right, the stars are in alignment, and the “gettin’ is good.”

But on Saturday, October 19, tragedy struck. Two workers engaged in checking out a section of track believed to be defective were hit by a train and killed. According to an Associated Press report (LA Times, 10-20), the two victims were a BART employee and an outside contractor. The driver of the train was reported to be a BART manager, filling in for a striking worker.

Out of respect for the victims and their families, the ATU announced that it would be pulling its 900 picketers on Sunday. As brutal and acrimonious as strikes can be, nobody wants to see anyone seriously hurt or killed. The only thing these two working men were trying to do was get a job done. Get the job done and go home. Their death was tragic.

Yet there are a couple of questions that need to be asked: (1) How tactful are we required to be when one of the victims was a scab—a worker who willingly crossed a picket line? And (2) how much slack are we required to give management employees who try to perform jobs they aren’t qualified to perform?

According to the AP, an official of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) acknowledged that one of the victims was an AFSCME member who had voluntarily chosen to cross an authorized union picket line.

Although AFSCME wasn’t part of the strike, its leadership had urged members to honor the SEIU-ATU pickets. Let’s be clear. No one is saying that scabs deserve to die. That sentiment may have had some traction in the 1930s, but it certainly doesn’t today, nor should it. There are lots of ways of dealing with scabs. Wanting them to die ain’t one of them.

But a manager doing a union worker’s job, and expecting to do it as well as the union worker, is a whole other deal. Whenever there’s a strike, it’s common for the company to claim the shutdown had little effect on production, boasting that management folks were able to keep the operation running smoothly. They always resort to that little “morale booster,” and, bless their hearts, it’s always a lie.

What happened on that BART track goes well beyond an attempt to boost morale. If that AP report is accurate, and a manager ran over a couple of guys because he was trying to do a job he wasn’t qualified for, it was more than just tragic. It was criminal.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.