BART officials and their largest labor unions have agreed on Wednesday for three-year contracts to avoid potentially laying off hundreds of employees amid the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the economy.

Potential layoffs

The arrangements would avoid any fare raise for the first year, allow up to a 2% increase during the second year, and a maximum of 2.5% afterward. However, the agreement would only take effect if BART recovers at least 60% of its ridership. The contracts are scheduled to start on July 1 until June 30, 2024.

On December 3, the Board of Directors of BART is set to cast their votes on the contracts. Despite the agency severely suffering from a loss of ridership due to the pandemic, the agreements would likely avoid worker strikes for three and a half years.

BART General Manager Robert Powers and the three labor unions’ leaders said that the contracts would allow the transit agency to continue working on providing service. They said that the agreements also emphasize the company’s determination to curb the pandemic’s spread and win back their riders’ trust.

The contracts’ approval also alleviates the issues of troubling negotiations as members from the Amalgamated Transit Union, Service Employees International Union, and American Federation of State, and County and Municipal Employees have already endorsed the agreements.

BART’s three labor unions represent about 3,261 workers, including train operators, station agents, maintenance workers and mechanics, and various administrative staff.

For the next three years, preventing worker strikes would leave BART successfully maintaining the peace between the agency and its three major unions after three severe incidents in 2013. The strikes had workers walking away from their workplaces, causing service to stop in July and October of that year. Staff argued about the failure of intense discussions towards peace.

The strikes forced the Bay Area to go into a state-wide gridlock, causing hour-long waits at the Bay Bridge and extended lines for Transbay buses and ferries. Two managers lost their lives during the strikes after being struck by a train while standing next to the tracks during a training run.

The incidents caused commuters to be furious at BART workers and almost caused a ban on strikes from employees. In 2016, the transit agency was able to peacefully discuss matters with the labor unions and stop strikes altogether.

Peace discussions

BART’s deputy general manager, Michael Jones, said the agency and unions’ most recent discussions began about two and a half months ago. At the time, the agency was slowly recovering from its sharp decline of ridership amid the travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. In the first few months of the crisis, BART saw an abysmal 3% ridership compared to numbers before the pandemic.

However, BART’s labor relations director, Shana Dines, said the agreements do not prevent potential layoffs or discussions about them. The agency’s Board approved last week an incentive plan that encourages employee retirement. Officials said that if not enough staff accept the benefits, layoffs could still occur.

Unions could avoid the cutbacks by agreeing to other types of cuts, including pay reductions or increased benefit contributions to unpaid days off. Jones said, “Anything the unions want us to consider, we’ll discuss,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The president of SEIOU 2021, John Arantes, said the contracts were fair for both sides. He added the conversations that took place focused on giving the agency and union workers an advantage amid the pandemic. They also talked about how to improve to recover their losses and preparations for when ridership slowly comes back.

Dines said that BART and union workers cooperated, focused on a recovery plan, and did not let past arguments slow them down.