On day four of the BART strike, Roxanne Sanchez didn’t have much time to spare.
Coming off a morning of closed-door meetings, Sanchez had just wrapped up a press conference in Service Employees International Union Local 1021’s Oakland headquarters, where she revealed that the union made a new offer to BART management, though she wouldn’t give many details. Minutes later she was one floor up in a colleague’s office, applying a Charles Dickens line to the current predicament between BART and the unions.
“How is that saying?” began the bespectacled union president, with a faint Guatemalan accent. “‘This is the best of time, this is the worst of time.’ That’s what we have.”
Her cell phone rang a few minutes later, and news on the other end sent Sanchez running out the door, with no time for explanation. “Excuse me, I have to go,” she said returning to the war room on the first floor of the building.
By the end of the night, Sanchez, who the public has gotten to know this summer as the face of BART workers, had reached a deal with management to end the transit strike that sent 400,000 Bay Area commuters scrambling for transportation last Friday. Details of the agreement are still emerging, but it appears both sides made some concessions.
As president of SEIU 1021 – a union that counts more than 50,000 members, including many BART employees – Sanchez has been a key player in the contract negotiations. The failed talks led to two strikes this year that have done nothing for the union’s public image, with recent polls showing the vast majority of Bay Area residents against the strike.
But Sanchez is accustomed to conflict. She argued on behalf of BART workers in the 2005 contract negotiations that only narrowly averted a strike. She’s also been a strong voice for reform within the union, often clashing with her superiors on behalf of the workers.
“Roxanne is from the rank and file,” said Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU 1021. “She is really a member-leader, and that’s why I think people look at her differently. People follow her, and understand she’s one of them.”
A tough negotiator
In union circles, Sanchez is admired as a crusader for worker rights who came up through the ranks as a BART employee. Those who have sat opposite Sanchez at the bargaining table also regard her as intelligent and tough, and a true believer in the union cause.
“Roxanne is a very bright person,” said Tom Margro, former BART general manager. “Very dogmatic. Believes in the union and works very hard for them. Difficult at times to get along with.”
Sanchez was elected to the position of board trustee in SEIU 790 – a smaller union that predates local 1021 – in 1994. She ran for president of the union in 2000, but lost by a mere 25 votes to incumbent Marshall Walker III. She ran again a few years later and won.
In 2010 — after SEIU leadership consolidated local 790 with nine other chapters, creating SEIU 1021 – Sanchez sought the top spot of the new union and won handily. Campaigning on a ticket called “Change 1021,” she blamed the union’s leadership for spending too much time and money on ice cream socials, and not enough effort standing up for workers in tough economic times.
As a leader, Sanchez prefers to work behind the scenes, arguing more power should be granted to individual workers as opposed to a top-down management style, said Randy Shaw, who has written about Sanchez as editor of alternative news site BeyondChron.
“That’s why she’s so low profile,” said Shaw, who is also Sanchez’s boss at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, where she works as a community organizer. “You don’t see her name everywhere because she thinks the workers should be front and center, not the leadership.”
When negotiations arrived again in 2005, a strike looked imminent. BART ridership had plummeted, and the union and management couldn’t agree on raise amounts and medical retiree benefits. As BART chapter president, Sanchez was one of the primary negotiators arguing on behalf of workers.
Margro, now retired, said negotiations were often slow going. He would show up to the table among four to eight people from BART and find himself staring at about 40 union members on the other side, he said. It was a hard-nosed back and forth, and in a room full of union members, it was often difficult to find common ground.
”[Sanchez] played her part,” he said. “She did it well. It was a tough negotiation. But we came to an agreement.”
In the union’s internal politics, Sanchez’s position as reformer willing to speak her mind has put her at odds with SEIU’s higher ups. In 2008, the San Francisco Bay Guardian published internal SEIU emails that appeared to show senior staff for international president Andy Stern organizing with local leaders against dissidents before a delegate convention. Sanchez publicly accused the staffers of “rigging the outcome” of the delegate election, according to the Guardian.
Stern declined to comment for this story.
That same month, in the wake of the controversy with leadership, Sanchez co-authored an op/ed outlining her philosophy on “union democracy,” a belief that union staffers should see themselves as working for the dues-paying union members – not the other way around.
“Roxanne is probably one of the most intelligent people that I know, especially when it comes to labor issues and worker-rights issues,” said Gary Jimenez, East Bay regional vice president for SEIU 1021. “She really understands working class people. It’s her mindset. It’s what she lives for.”
Last Thursday evening, Sanchez announced that negotiations with BART management over a new worker contract had failed. For the second time in four months, BART workers were going on strike, effective midnight.
“I’m sorry,” she said at the press conference. “I’m regretful. I don’t know what to say to the public who has put such faith in the leadership and responsibility of those of us who work at BART. All I can say is that the employer has been unwilling to reach an agreement.”
From the beginning, it seemed a compromise would be hard to find: the unions wanted a 23.2 percent raise over four years, while BART offered a four-year contract that would give a one-percent raise tied to some economic conditions. When they failed to find a middle ground, the union went on a four-day strike in July that ended after Gov. Jerry Brown called for a cooling-off period that would end Oct. 10. It looked like a second strike would be averted until Sanchez’s announcement.
One of the primary negotiating hurdles was BART management’s proposal to eliminate a contract clause known as “beneficial past practices,” something the unions have plainly refused to budge on in past negotiations as well. If management was able to eliminate the clause, it could change certain work rules, such as trading a paper paystub system – a worker task – for an electronic alternative.
In SEIU’s Oakland building on Monday, there was little sign that a compromise was just hours away, as exhausted union members gathered around a conference table for the press conference. It was the fourth day of the strike, but marathon negotiations had been underway for much longer.
“We’re going on caffeine and bad food,” said Castelli.
But Sanchez seemed unfazed. Surrounded by microphones and television cameras, she accused management of neglecting worker safety.
“What we’re really arguing about is how much safety are we willing to compromise,” she told reporters. “And the problem is: we’re not willing to compromise on safety. And that’s why we’re in the strike.
This is an unfair labor strike. And remember this. And the public should wrap their head around this.”
In a later interview, Sanchez blamed management for “running the transit system into two strikes that could have been avoided.”
“To me, I think the workforce — AFSCME, ATU, SEIU – banned together over the last several weeks because we understood that this employer is unrecognizable to us,” she said. “They have extreme views of where and how they want to move this train system.”
So far, the public doesn’t see it that way. A recent KPIX poll of Bay Area residents found that 76 percent opposed the strike, and 44 percent believed management was winning the argument.
But Sanchez was defiant. When the dust settles, she believes the public will eventually come to see the union was fighting the good fight, she said.
“Oh, I guarantee you,” she said. “I guarantee you.”