From the mouths of BART workers; cleaning the dreaded escalators, skirting death

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Robert Earl Bright
Photo courtesy of Mark Mosher SEIU 1021
Robert Earl Bright, a transit vehicle mechanic for BART, works at the Hayward modification shop.

A reprieve in BART negotiations has given the Bay Area time to breathe before the next possible strike, but a lot of public concerns and animosity toward BART still remains. So the Guardian decided to take a look at BART workers themselves (we found them through their union) and ask, “How would your life change if the unions adopted BART management’s offers on safety, pensions, wages and health care?”

Note: The audio interviews are summarized in this post, but give them a listen to get a fuller picture of the impact of labor negotiations on worker’s lives.

First we met Robert Earl Bright, a 47-year-old transit vehicle mechanic at the Hayward yards, where he’s been for three years. BART trains seem tame compared to the machines he used to work with, as he started out as an Air Force mechanic working on cargo planes.

It’s that experience he draws from when he said BART’s policies are becoming increasingly dangerous.

Bright is tall but soft-spoken, and while we sat at a bench in a courtyard at Lake Merrit BART station, he talked about the shortcuts BART has taken lately, and how overtime and consolidation are bad practices for everyone involved.

There used to be specific workers called Power & Way controllers who looked out for workers on the train tracks and made sure they were safe, he said, but those responsibilities were consolidated into a separate train controller position. Since then, Bright saw the death of a colleague, a mechanic who switched from a graveyard shift to a day shift and was hit by an oncoming train.

Only after the death did BART take steps to ensure parts of the track where there was less clearance safe from trains were marked, he said.

“The problem is BART seems to wait until someone gets killed until they want to do something about it,” he said.

Bright is a new grandfather. He helps support his daughter and her two toddlers, and he supports his older brother who suffers from dementia. Bright has a home that his fiance bought, but is “upside-down,” as he says, because of a predatory loan.

He’s one of the lucky ones though, as the military pays for his health care, and the negotiations don’t impact him as far as that goes. But he does worry about his pension, and thinks he may have to cut back on supporting his elderly brother and his grandchildren. Even with those cutbacks in his life, he’ll likely have to look for a part time job as a car mechanic, he said.

While contemplating that future, his four-hour daily commute, and the new expectations BART asked of his crew to repair more cars in less time, he started to develop an ulcer.

“They’re short on people, and it’s cheaper for the managers to pay for overtime than to pay for another person,” he said. The stress pressed on him and one day at work he grew dizzy and collapsed, and that’s when he started to be a little more zen about what BART asked of him. But he still said it’s not right.

“Our shop is a mod [modification] shop, but we got tasked with doing preventive maintenance. Our shop isn’t set up for that,” he said. And that means workers who aren’t trained for that particular job are pushed to fix up cars when normally they’re doing an entirely different job. That can be dangerous, he said.

“We have to make sure that those trains not only run, we also have to make sure they’re safe,” Bright said. “Something could happen, like a panel popping off. It touches the third rail, it could catch on fire. If we could miss something... it could cause a derailment.”

As far as Bright goes, he said he’s seeing more people working over time at the request of managers, working longer hours that could lead to unsafe conditions — not just for the mechanics, but for the people who ride BART every day.


Phyllis Alexander, a BART systems service worker, cleans up in the Mission. Photo courtesy of Mark Mosher, SEIU 1021

Phyllis Alexander

Phyllis Alexander has been with BART for 16 years in systems service, which she said basically means, “cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”

“Wherever they need me, that’s what I do,” she said.

Alexander often starts her days cleaning the elevators and escalators at Powell Street Station, and if you’ve been reading the news lately, you know what that means.

She doesn’t mince words about it: “I clean the urine and the feces out of the elevators and make sure it’s clean and smelling good for the patrons.”

But Alexander doesn’t hold it against the homeless. When she first started at BART, she had little contact with them. But over the years, she’s made good friends out of some of the homeless at Powell and 16th St. stations, and the latter is where she sat and told her story.

“As the years passed it got worse. People living in their cars on the streets, in their doorways. I’ve met a lot of wonderful homeless people, wonderful people,” she said. And as the years went by, it got harder for the cleaning crew, too. She’s one of two systems service folk who take care of Powell Street Station at any one time.

“Sometimes it can be tough, it can get hectic, but we get it done. It’s hecka huge, and there’s only two of us, but we have to do the best we can do.”

But she keeps with it for herself and her daughter.

Her daughter just finished medical school and is still living with her. Alexander makes about $52,000 a year, she said, and couldn’t figure out major cuts she’d make in her lifestyle to make room for paying more into her pension or health care.

“It would hurt me,” she said. She said that though people in the Bay Area demonize BART workers for wanting a raise, she feels it's simply been too long since they’ve had one.

“I think I haven’t gotten a raise in two contracts. Its been like seven or eight years,” she said.

Devoutly religious, ultimately she keeps faith that the workers will prevail in negotiations.

“(God) is going to bring this through ... this thing with management, it’s going to be all right,” she said.

Comments

It's the oldest trick in the book to dig out one or two unrepresentative and inherently sympathetic characters (preferably non-white, of course) and portray them as "salt of the earth" types who are simply "doing their job".

No mention of the real issue here - that BART workers are on fat salaries and unbelievable benefits that are unsustainable. And that propping up their improbable largesse means that systems improvements cannot be made.

I pay for my own pension and healthcare. Damned if I am going to pay for theirs as well. BART should stand firm and, if necessary fire all the staff and hire new staff under new conracts that bear some resemblance to reality.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 12:05 am

Do you work for the people who have been hired to publicly smear the Bart workers or are you just anti-worker? Is $60,000 - $70,000 a year a fat salary for a family in the Bay Area? Did you give up your rights to Social Security in order to have a good pension and benefits? Because the Bart workers did.

People like you are unbelievable and your outrage is despicable. As with all of these tirades against workers; it is all about "I" have to do this and "I" don't get that. Maybe you should stop wasting your time slandering the working class and try changing your own situation if you are so unhappy.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 12:43 am

is a "fair" salary in terms of what it can buy. I assess their income in terms of their skill/educational level, and what that is worth in the open merket i.e. what would it cost for me to replace them?

And I am fairly sure I can find someone who can read a book while a train drives itself for less than 76K a year, and certainly without free pensions and almost free healthcare.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 1:55 am

The idea that people get paid based on their skill and education level is a talking point that deserves unpacking. I don't pay my doctor because of her skill and education level. The skill and education level is the means to the end. The end I pay for is (potentially) saving my life.

NO ONE in this society gets paid for their skill and education level. A lot of skilled and educated college grads (yes, even those with STEM degrees) are finding this out the hard way when their employers are paying them whatever their job is worth to the company NOT based on their skill and education level. Ditto foreign workers coming here with special visas, paid less than comparably skilled American workers.

If filling my cavity is worth a good salary, so is "pushing buttons" to get me to work day after day. The same salary? No. But maybe as much as I make as a white-collar editor? Sure. I have no problem with that.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 11:52 am

"What would it cost to replace you in the open market?"

For a doctor, that might be 150K a year.

For a BART worker? Maybe 40K-50K tops.

Posted by anon on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

1. Go to: http://www.mercurynews.com/salaries/bay-area
2. Under "Entity", chose "Bay Area Rapid Transit"
3. Click "search"
4. Page 1 of 138 will appear.
5. In the "Page" box, type 69, and click enter. Now a page w/the median annual salary of BART employees will appear.

The median salary is $117,626.

This includes $74,000 in base pay, approximately $9,000 in overtime pay, around $6,000 in lump sum payments for unused sick/vacation/comp time [Other], around $10,000 in pension payments, and roughly $5,000 in other pension costs [EE] that legally are supposed to be paid by the employee himself but are covered by BART.
BART employees pay nothing into their own pensions. They get full health benefits for themselves and all dependents for $92 a month. And worst of all, they are on defined-benefit pension plans (just like rich people are) that GUARANTEE 8% annually compounded returns.
These salaries are very generous, and the pension costs are completely unsustainable.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 9:06 am

semi-skilled or unskilled worker.

We should fire them all and start over.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 9:21 am

When someone asks you how much you make a year you give you base salary. I make $50,000 a year. You don't include the cost of hte pension or employers 401K match of you or the cost of the healthcare you employer provides.

That is just misleading and biased trying to push an anti-public worker agenda.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:31 am

which is pay plus benefits.

And we are the employers of BART workers therefore we decide what they are worth, not them

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Your complete lack of understanding and respect for human beings is sick

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

have to pay the bills for these workers that I am opposed to throwing money at the workers here. There are broader ethical issues at stake.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

The greedy selfish behavior of elitist people like you.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

this is simply a barricade against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

I agree completely, that's an underhanded tactic!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

Just like fire and police, although these employees are far from safety employees, an awful lot of people depend on this service.

Posted by No strike clause on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

Transport workers, not so much.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

i think you just admitted you support BART workers

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

completely agree...

The story above was to pull at my heart strings...52K for unskilled labor...nasty work, I agree...but well paid. That is roughly $26 per hour, plus benefits.

Union should be ashamed. Good people are going to lose their jobs.

I would wipe the slate clean, start hiring non union labor and build a viable business.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Upper-middle-class on 117k?! Do you even live here? Bridge and tunnel I'm guessing......

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

How ridiculous. If you took all the salaries at the museum I am working at including, IT, Legal, Directors it would also look like I am making $117,000. But instead I make $35,000.

It is more meaningful to look at job classes and see if they make sense. Would you disparage the front line staff of a doctor's office because he makes $300,000 but she is getting $13 an hour because of their median salaries?

Posted by Sigmarlin on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

The media has been including the salaries of all the non union managers to inflate the average salary. Including overtime is also totally misleading because management signs off on that and could put a stop to it if they wanted to

Posted by Guest on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

no, the median salary is 64k. you have to click on "base" to make sure the salaries are populated from highest to low.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 14, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

this is simply a barrier against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by wally on Oct. 14, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

"Is $60,000 - $70,000 a year a fat salary for a family in the Bay Area?"

Nope. But $124,000 is:

Phyllis Alexander
$51,775 base salary
$38,916 overtime (Good going, Phyllis! That's $3K a month in overtimes; piling it on a bit!)
$9,305 Other Lump sum sick payouts (ditto!)
$9,305 Healthcare/medical
$6,729 ER Employer contribution to pension (WHOA! A golden pension package!)
$2,223 Misc Other non-cash paid costs of employment
TOTAL ANNUAL SALARY $124,381
Phyllis has got a sweet upper-middle-class wage deal. She is not a struggling working-class girl trying to make ends meet. Just saying. It's all right here at:
http://www.mercurynews.com/salaries/bay-area

Posted by Troll the XIV on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 9:04 am

If you knew your facts " Troll the XIV" then you would know that the figures posted online are not accurate, Bart workers dont bring in anything near. $124,000! The benefits/ healthcare/ pension you quoted are not brought home by any Bart employee. What most people dont realize is that Bart employess are NOT ELIGIBLE for Social Security , therefore we have a pension to replace what we would have contriubuted towards SSI. The stories and articles you hear on TV or read online are not always the REAL truth so before you are so quick to judge an honest person just trying to make a living in the SF bay area, take a moment to know your facts.

Dont be upset that you are not a Bart employee, or have the wages/ benefits we have.... Be upset that YOUR employer does not offer you the same compensation for your hard work and support the Cost of Living needed to be in the Bay area! The unions are fighting for ALL working class people, a better contract for us means better advantages for ALL.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 11:30 am

That immediately invalidates your "points" and demonstrates your bias.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 11:43 am

"Dont be upset that you are not a Bart employee, or have the wages/ benefits we have.... Be upset that YOUR employer does not offer you the same compensation for your hard work and support the Cost of Living needed to be in the Bay area! The unions are fighting for ALL working class people, a better contract for us means better advantages for ALL."

Yes, because we can afford to pay ALL janitors $125k and give them a pension worth millions of dollars. Never mind that per capita income for San Francisco is less than $50k, and per capita income for Alameda County is under $35k. The least skilled deserve to make 3 times the average!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 11:48 am

were sustainable, rational or affordable?

They only care that their gravy train continue forever on someone else's dime.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 11:59 am

So, you are a BART employee then.

Look, your lavish benefits have to be accounted for in your pay package. Somebody has to pay for them, and that is the riders/taxpayers.

You retire at age 58 (on average) with pensions equivalent to 80% of your salary that are guaranteed, with increases, for life.

The rest of us will muddle through with any savings we have.

Count your blessings-while they still last (ie before bankruptcy).

Posted by Troll the XIV on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

GREEDY BASTARDS.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 14, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

But somebody has to pay for those costs. And it is the taxpayers and riders.

These benefits do not appear out of nowhere, brought on a platter by a flying unicorn.

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Posted by Cheap Tiffany Charms on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 8:27 am

""What most people dont realize is that Bart employess are NOT ELIGIBLE for Social Securityz'''

Yes, they have a much sweeter deal. They have guaranteed-benefit plans (just like the 1%-ers) that guarantee 7% annual increases to their pensions. The rest of us muddle along on SS or defined-contribution plans (401-K)

The underfunded pension costs will bankrupt BART (and California) eventually.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 11:59 am

Most people who pay into SS get around $20K per year in benefits after they reach 66 years. All of their other income comes from either IRA's, 401K's or Pensions. Most defined benefit pensions provide 1% of salary for every year of service. BART and other Government employees get a much better deal that private workers who get Social Security.
BTW - AC Transit settled for 3.25% annual increases. BART is still asking for almost double that.

Posted by Richmondman on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

Bart workers may not get Social Security but they get a VEY good pension that they did not pay into. Everyone else PAYS into Social Security in order to get SS benefits. It's called FICA as a description on your paycheck stubs. Now Bart workers NEEDS to pay into their pension plan to get a pension benefits.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

They are the highest payed public transit workers. They don't have to drive in traffic. They sit in a booth and press buttons all days. Yes maybe the maintenace workers should get more but not the train operators or the lazy peopel that sit in the booths. They are also very rude. 60,000 to 70,000 a year. Yes you may need more then that to live in the bay area in a year. But isn't that what your spouce is suppose to help with. If its only a 1 income family and you can't afford where you live. Then you are living beyond your means. Move to some where cheaper.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 14, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

this is simply a barrier against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by wally on Oct. 14, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

what a joke u people making that kind of salary 6000 to 7000 that's a ton of money from what I know about bartworkers im 28 and have been taking bart since 2001 what about the grocery workers who work for luckys primarly we probably work harder then most of you guys an don't even come close to make the money u make its a joke.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 19, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

Do you work for the people who have been hired to publicly smear the Bart workers or are you just anti-worker? Is $60,000 - $70,000 a year a fat salary for a family in the Bay Area? Did you give up your rights to Social Security in order to have a good pension and benefits? Because the Bart workers did.

People like you are unbelievable and your outrage is despicable. As with all of these tirades against workers; it is all about "I" have to do this and "I" don't get that. Maybe you should stop wasting your time slandering the working class and try changing your own situation if you are so unhappy.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 12:48 am

Lord, this comment is written by someone who obviously was related to Adam Smith, who justified the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-47 as a function of the all-blessed "Market". Or maybe Marie Antoinette, she too, was full of sympathy for the downtrodden working people. At any rate, there are plenty of assholes in every time and place, ready to rear up their ugly heads to justify social inequality and injustice. For this jerk, it seems that the fact that other hard-working people outside of BART get screwed on the regular should be reason enough that these workers at BART are as well.

The Bay Area is losing its heart and soul to these interlopers. We are massacring the ethos on which this City and the whole Bay Area stands--Liberalism, social justice, multiculturalism, cultural acceptance, nay, appreciation, of human difference, and damn it, the "quaintness" mentioned days ago by Courtney Love, former San Franciscan. We are becoming a place populated by people who are *truly* overcompensated by the beloved Market, who actually believe, in this world in which human value is turned on its head, that they deserve the obscene amount of cash and stock options they gobble up.

I, for one, do not believe that the fact that most working people are treated like dog shit should be justification to both financially devalue BART workers as well as endanger their lives, and the lives of their passengers, with unsafe working conditions. I, as always, stand by the side of the people who are in the trenches actually WORKING--with a capital "W-O-R-K-I-N-G", rather than puffed-up bullies like the one who wrote the previous comment, who think that getting massages and playing foosball in a spectacular climate-controlled office--or alternatively, spectacular climate-controlled bus, are worth ten times what these true heroes are paid.

What kind of community do we want here in our beloved Bay Area? A place where real work and dedication are valued from all people, or a tableau that makes scenes from Dickens' literature look like a Socialist utopia?

Posted by Karlyn Isaac Lotney on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 7:46 am

Presumably you surf the net while "driving" the driverless trains and collecting a free pension?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 9:00 am

You do not know or represent the so called ethos of Bay Area. No one is and there is no such thing as San Francisco or Bay Area ethos so if you're going to write anything write concrete arguments

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

For trashing working people who are standing up for themselves. If more people did what Bart workers are doing then the US wouldn't be in such a sad state these days

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

And much of that is because they see BART workers are already paid way too much.

Posted by anon on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

It sounds like you want to be a politician!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 8:14 am
:)

:)

Posted by Guest on Aug. 13, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

Can't deny the facts can you?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 8:15 am

I feel sure you have a lot of success with that "strategy".

Posted by anon on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 8:28 am

doesn't it? Being a greedy a-hole isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 07, 2013 @ 10:14 am
Posted by Guest on Aug. 08, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

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