The BART Strike, Public Employee Unions, and Productivity

Article excerpt

A strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) unions is paralyzing San Francisco and surrounding areas. It has left some 400,000 daily riders stranded or forced to drive, which has clogged highways and increased traffic delays. The Bay Area Economic Council estimates the cost in lost economic activity at $73 million per day.

Few indicators show the unions and management coming back to the bargaining table anytime soon. The sticking point is salary and benefits.

In most parts of the country, public employee strikes are illegal. Yet, in California they are legal under the Meyers-Millias- Brown Act. (They are also legal in Illinois, where 26,000 teachers went on strike last fall). Yet, public sector union leaders have often claimed that "the only illegal strike is an unsuccessful strike."

Public sector strikes are in many ways more damaging than those in the private sector. When employees walk off the job at a business, only the striking workers, the company, and its customers and suppliers are affected. The rest of the economy continues humming along.

In government, however, labor unions can hold the public hostage. Therefore, even President Franklin Roosevelt, a friend to organized labor, could say, "A strike of public employees ... looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable."

The number of public sector strikes has declined dramatically since the 1970s, but when they happen, they are enormously damaging. In 2009, there were only five major work stoppages involving a mere 13,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, recall the 2005 pre-Christmas strike by the Transportation Works Union Local 100, which operates the subways and buses in New York City. The illegal strike disrupted holiday shopping and travel, costing the city millions.

Public sector strikes are part of the larger issue of how government workers' unions reduce productivity and efficiency.

Rigid work rules enshrined in collective bargaining contracts reduce the discretion of managers to assign or transfer workers to tasks for which they are best suited. Management is also prevented from rewarding high performers, or disciplining and dismissing poor performers. …