Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART)
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART, District) was involved in high-profile contract talks with its labor unions during 2013. With only weeks left before the contracts expired, the talks were at a standstill with no progress in narrowing the wide gap in bargaining positions. While there had not been a BART strike in more than a dozen years, the negotiations appeared headed in that direction. Rick was called in on short notice just before the contract expired to replace BART’s long-time PR advisor. He worked closely with BART’s communications team and functioned as both strategist and spokesman for the District through protracted negotiations and two union strikes.
There was a long history of state and local elected officials supporting union positions and forcing the District into last-minute, expensive settlements. The District communications strategy needed to counter this tactic by building broad public support for reaching a reasonable agreement with the unions.
Union leadership wanted large pay increases and no increases in employee costs for pensions or health care. They portrayed the negotiations as about fair pay and worker safety. Throughout the negotiations, they made emotional appeals to garner public support. When a high-profile lead negotiator was hired by the District to move discussions forward, the unions complained of unfair bargaining.
In spite of a wage freeze in 2009 during the Great Recession, BART employees were well-paid and their earnings were a matter of public record. They also received “Cadillac” health benefits, paying less than $100 a month for generous coverage, regardless of family size. Plus, they contributed virtually nothing toward their pension costs.
The District wanted to provide moderate pay raises for all employees and modestly increase their pension and health care contributions. The District also wanted to update costly archaic work rules, one of which allowed employees to collect overtime without working a 40-hour week.
The team developed a communications strategy to influence public opinion in favor of the District and implemented a plan to take charge of the quickly-evolving media landscape.
The messaging stuck to the facts, driving home three key media talking points: 1) BART employees already received excellent pay and benefits; 2) Taxpayers were subsidizing costly, archaic work rules; and, 3) BART needed to allocate capital to critical infrastructure improvements, rather than pad paychecks and continue unsustainable benefits.
Throughout the negotiations, Rick and the team urged union leadership to come to the table and negotiate fairly based on the facts.
The team’s approach to shaping public opinion worked.
The majority of Bay Area taxpayers, many of whom were BART riders, were outraged when presented with the facts and became even angrier when the unions forced two strikes. Many riders relied on BART to get to jobs offering far less total compensation for equivalent or even higher level positions. Regular commuters also were keenly aware of the aging infrastructure, enduring frequent delays, system breakdowns and sullied car interiors.
Even with snarled commutes through two separate strikes, the usually labor-friendly Bay Area supported the District’s position. A survey by CBS San Francisco found 68 percent of the public against a strike. A second survey by the Bay Area Business Council showed 77 percent of the public strongly or somewhat opposed to a strike.
For the most part, Bay Area elected officials remained on the sidelines throughout the highly-charged negotiations.
“Whatever the case, BART’s PR machine has won the most converts to its side. Should there be a BART strike, it looks like that machine will draw even more people to its side.” San Francisco Business Times (October 10, 2013)