Clottis Wright has been watching throngs of bleary-eyed BART riders pour in from the East Bay into San Francisco for 14 years. He works for the San Francisco Department of Public Works, where he cleans up around the Mission BART plaza at 16th street.
“Look at all the people who are working out here and tired. It’s that commute that does it. They’re drained. They look like they have worked half a day’s work when they just got here,” said Wright.
But on Friday, the stress on haggard Bay Area workers’ faces was worse than usual. After months of bargaining and a week of unfulfilled strike threats that kept commuters on edge, BART workers went on strike after unions and management failed to reach a deal on employee contract terms.
Roxanne Sanchez, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said unions would strike unless negotiations miraculously came through at the 11th hour.
Previous threats had been made repeatedly in the seven days leading up to Friday morning’s strike, but unions and BART management appeared to be close to a deal earlier this week when negotiations suddenly became unhinged Thursday night. Federal mediator George Cohen and his two colleagues returned to Washington DC.
The closure of BART stations sent early morning commuters scrambling to cram into shuttle buses, biking out to ferry ports, and lining up for casual carpools organized via Twitter. Strike-swollen traffic on bridges and freeways backed up. Meanwhile, at picket lines set up outside BART stations and at a rally at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, striking workers drew a mixed chorus of jeers and encouragement, racial insults and an occasional food offering of sandwiches.
“I remember the first time BART went on strike back in July, I rode my bike all the way to Walnut Creek,” said Velia Villa, who lives in Oakland and works in commercial real estate in Walnut Creek. “My boss was so concerned for me when she found out. But it is not just me, so many of my co-workers rely on BART.”
BART hired around 150 charter buses to shuttle commuters from East Bay BART stations into San Francisco. BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said they’re only equipped to accommodate about 4,000 to 6,000 people. But that’s just a fraction of the roughly 400,000 individual rides BART provides each day. During a press conference Thursday night, Trost admitted it was just “a drop in the bucket.”
At the West Oakland BART station, where chartered buses were running to San Francisco, there were enough early bird commuters for the first bus to pull out just after 5 this morning. BART had planned to use seven buses with each holding 50 to 60 passengers at this location. But in less than two hours, all but two had already been used.
At BART stations all over the East Bay, buses sold out quickly, with Walnut Creek and Fremont running out by 7 and Concord, San Leandro and Hayward also struggling with early demand. According to Bob Franklin, who organized the charter buses for BART, the buses can accommodate 6,000 round trip passengers. He’s looking for ways to “stretch” the 200 buses on hand. “We have to match the a.m. and p.m. service, so we have to do it carefully,” he said. Franklin said demand Friday morning was greater, and earlier, than during the July strike.
“We might have to change the hours to 5:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.,” he said.
Oakland resident Danika Elrick, 26, found herself a seat on one of the first charter buses, well before the sun was up. For Elrick, who works out early in the mornings before going to work at a law firm in San Francisco, the beginning of her commute wasn’t much of a worry. Coming back, however, was the issue. “Last time, it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get from the Trans bay Terminal [in San Francisco] to I-80,” she says.
“I’m going to see if I can take a half-day vacation,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have that—I know not everybody is.”
With regular BART service shut down, displaced rail passengers who opted out of riding the buses hopped in their cars. As traffic swelled along East Bay freeways, the Bay Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael, Carquinez, Benicia-Martinez, Antioch, Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges extended car pool lane hours from 5 a.m. – 7 a.m.
Despite the extended hours, California Highway Patrol reported heavier than usual traffic. Daniel Hill, spokesperson for CHP, warned that if the strike extends to Monday, there will be even more vehicles causing overcrowding along major freeways.
Congested roads are expected to make it more difficult for parents to get their kids to school, said Jody London, District 1 representative at Oakland Unified School District.
“We want the kids in school so they can learn, and when parents have trouble getting kids to school, it leads to lots of other challenges,” said London. She added that the strike also affects teachers’ transportation options.
Still, most students rely on their parents for a ride to school or opt to take AC Transit, since it is less expensive than BART. So, schools aren’t expecting a dramatic plunge in attendance, said Troy Flint, spokesperson for OUSD.
For trans-bay commuters looking for a less conventional way of getting into the city, casual carpools lined up at various pick-up points around the Bay. Lila Cohen, who works as an architect in San Francisco, perused the casual carpool system for the first time this morning. Cohen said she was initially skeptical of casual carpool for safety reasons but ultimately described her experience as “surprisingly fun.”
“I procrastinated in even getting to the station,” she said. “I thought ‘maybe it’ll all clear up.’ I was kind of in denial for a little while that BART [was] going to come back, but eventually I had to just go.”
Cohen hopped a ride with casual carpool driver Emily White, who works as the regional director for the Red Cross in San Francisco.
Despite traffic, Cohen and White said their commute through casual carpool was pretty easy.
“We’ve actually got a pretty good commute thanks to casual carpool. We’ve got two riders and we just zoomed through the carpool lane,” said White.
Union members, who held picket lines throughout the bay, including one central picket rally at Lake Merritt BART at noon today, were met with a mix of support and insults from onlookers. One man dressed as a pig with money stuffed in his pocket and a sign that read, “I support management. –P.R. Pig” and a briefcase that read, “Special interests.”
Drivers at El Cerrito Del Norte and Lake Merritt picket sites honked in support of the picketers, but not everyone was so supportive. There were occasional angry outbursts too. At least one exchange, at El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, was colored by racism when one white man on a bike shouted at the largely African American union members. “None of you are educated!” he yelled repeatedly. He then pointed to one of the few white strikers and said, “Do you see what you are surrounded by?”
One young man at Lake Merritt BART ran up to protestors, flipped them off, and yelled “Parasites,” while spitting on picketers. Union members responded by silently moving closer to the man with their signs held in front of their faces.
Protesters gathered at the El Cerrito Del Norte station with signs that read “Safety First” and “Stop the Violence,” but said that union leadership had advised them not to speak to the press. A BART police cruiser pulled up to the curb and someone inside handed a bundle of sandwiches out the window to strikers. The BART police are not on strike.
While worker pay was originally at the heart of the debate between worker unions and management, the sticking point that triggered the strike was said to be work rules.
“At this point, we have come to an overall understanding on economics. However, in the end, BART management is withholding settlement because they want to fundamentally and significantly change the conditions under which we work,” read a statement from SEIU 1021 president, Roxanne Sanchez.
BART general manager Grace Crunican released an open letter about the issue, stating that the unresolved issues between unions and management are just as varied as when negotiations began.
“The issues of dispute in the breakdown between management and our unions are the same now as they have been during the last six months – no agreement on wages and critical work rules that drive daily scheduling, work assignments, use of technology and the ability of BART to adopt industry best practices.”
At the West Oakland BART station, some commuters showed up at 8:00 a.m. to find there were no options to head across the bay. East Oakland resident Stephanie Hampton, a coordinator for a company in San Francisco, arrived at the station to find the last bus had just pulled out. Walking back to her car to face the traffic she asked, “Who stops at 8 o’clock?”
“That’s not when the commute stops,” she said.
Back at the 16th street Mission BART station, Clottis Wright took a coffee break at a nearby McDonalds. He says the strike has changed the way he views unions.
“Unions aren’t for the people any more. They’re for big wigs and politicians. I was in a union for years but now I’m out. Unions used to hire anyone with a diploma and a drivers license. Now they burn young guys. They make them work part time without benefits. I used to want my son to join a union but now I want him to go to college.”
With contributing reports from: Jason Paladino, Max Levenson, Alexander Mullaney, Shelby Carpenter, James Reddick, Melissa Hellmann, Yolanda Martinez, Guisel Contreras, Terray Sylvester, Kathleen Seccombe, Niema Jordan and Trenise Ferreira.