Betrayal or mistake? BART unions sue board over contract issue

Betrayal or mistake? BART unions sue board over contract issue
Bay Area Rapid Transit unions have sued the district board over a contract issue that the unions call a betrayal and management says was a mistake. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO -- When weary BART managers and union leaders emerged from negotiations in October with a tentative contract, it seemed the acrimony that had subjected more than 200,000 rail commuters to two crippling strikes and much uncertainty was finally over.

Not so fast.


On Tuesday, the two largest unions representing Bay Area Rapid Transit workers filed a lawsuit against BART's board of directors over what labor leaders describe as an unlawful betrayal and management calls a "mistake."

At issue is a "tentative agreement" that was included in a stack of many that were hammered out in months of bitter bargaining. The tentative agreement in question would give each BART employee the right to six weeks of paid family medical leave per year.

BART management says it was "signed in error" in July, noting that the issue was discussed only briefly, twice rejected by management as too costly and then "withdrawn by the unions."

The Family Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually and BART management said employees can use their "3-6 weeks of vacation, 13 paid holidays and 12 sick days" that they will receive annually under other terms of the agreement to help pay for it.

The questionable document was signed by outside chief negotiator Thomas Hock (now former outside chief negotiator), Assistant General Manager Paul Oversier and Labor Relations Manager Rudy Medina.

BART managers detected the "mistake" before the transit district's board voted to ratify the complete deal. At a closed meeting last month, board members instead opted to remove the provision and ask the unions to ratify the agreement without it.

The provision adds significant cost to what BART had portrayed as a $67-million contract. In a statement Tuesday, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said district negotiators "would never have knowingly agreed to such a financially backbreaking proposal."

Trost said BART would review the lawsuit in the coming days. Litigation, she said, "will only delay resolution to BART's labor contract. A lawsuit is not needed to correct a mistake. When mistakes are made in contract negotiations they are corrected administratively by the parties, acting in good faith."

Leaders of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, however, said in their own statement that if it was a "mistake," it was caused "only by the district's own carelessness and lack of constructive engagement at the bargaining table, which are not grounds for refusing to ratify a total package agreement."

Union leaders say they expressed willingness to discuss the problem but that management only gave them one choice: to accept the agreement without the provision.

"It's unlawful for BART or any employer to sidestep months of negotiations, unilaterally change the terms of a total package agreement, and then offer the modified terms to the union on a take-it-or-leave-it basis," they said.

The lawsuit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court.

Union leaders have said that no one is talking about another strike. As for the labor contract? To be continued.