Tag: BART

Labor Unions Against the Public Interest

The folly of monopoly unionism (“collective bargaining”) in government is most evident when labor unions strike. Hundreds of thousands of San Francisco area residents are currently having their lives disrupted by union actions against the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. BART’s unions want higher wages:

The unions, which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff, want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years. BART said train operators and station agents in the unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually.

Bloomberg says that BART workers receive annual benefits averaging $50,800, so these folks are well-paid. It is true that every worker in America would like higher pay. The difference is that most of us don’t have special government-created powers to cause city-wide damage when we ask for a raise.

Most Americans compete in the marketplace, which limits their power and encourages the provision of low-cost, high-quality services. But most government services are enforced monopolies, which breed inefficiency. Monopoly unions compound the inefficiencies, and lead to the sort of selfish, anti-consumer behavior this strike represents. By the way, the same thing happened to BART in 1997 “when a six-day shutdown jammed freeways and saddled workers with lengthier commutes.” 

Strikes are not the only problem caused by unions in government. Unions push up operating costs and generally reduce service quality. A Washington Post editor yesterday discussed union problems in D.C.’s Metro system after a conversation with the system’s manager, Richard Sarles:

If I had my druthers,’ [Sarles] said, he would hire station managers based on ‘the ability to operate in a customer-friendly way.’ But, Sarles said, Metro’s collective bargaining agreement requires him to promote bus drivers to train operators and station managers. In fact, his spokesman said, mediocre bus drivers may get promoted more quickly because ‘we need to get you from behind the wheel.’ And if someone does a great job as station manager, ‘I can’t recognize that financially,’ Sarles said. 

So here’s the “manager” of a government agency who doesn’t even have the authority to manage his own workforce. It is ironic that Metro and BART are called “public services,” but managers of private businesses are better able to actually serve the public. 

Here’s another curious thing: liberals and environmentalists are eager to get Americans out of their cars and into mass transit, but their left-of-center friends—the unions—work against those goals. Unions push up the costs of transit and reduce service quality, which encourages people to stay in their cars. Furthermore, cars won’t go on strike against commuters like government workers will. 

About the current strike, BART spokesman Rick Rice said: “About 400,000 commuters use BART every day in the San Francisco Bay area … The public doesn’t deserve to be punished.” He’s right, but citizens are being punished everyday in cities across the nation because of the misguided idea of union-dominated, government-run transit. 

You may be interested to know that before the 1960s, most urban rail and bus transit in America was provided by the private sector. So we certainly don’t need labor unions in mass transit—and we may not even need the government. 

Further reading:

Welcoming a New Common Noun: ‘the Mubarak’

Officials in London are looking everywhere but the mirror for places to affix blame for the recent riots. Beyond the immediate-term answer, individual rioters themselves, the target of choice seems to be “social media.” Prime Minister David Cameron is considering banning Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger to disable people from organizing themselves or reporting the locations and activity of the police.

Nevermind substantive grievance. Nevermind speech rights. We’ve got scapegoats to find!

[Events like this are nothing but a vessel into which analysts pour their ideological preconceptions, so here’s a sip of mine: Just like a spoiled child doesn’t grow up to be a gracious and kind adult, a population sugar-fed on entitlements doesn’t become a meek and thankful underclass. Also: people don’t like it when the police kill unarmed citizens. Which brings us to some domestic U.S. ineptitude…]

Two-and-a-half years ago, a (San Francisco) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed an unarmed man on a station platform in full view of a train full of riders (video). Sentenced to just two years for involuntary manslaughter, he was paroled in June. This week, upon learning of planned protests of the killing that may have disrupted service, BART officials cut off cell phone service in select stations, hoping to thwart the demonstrators.

[Update: A correspondent notes that the BART protest was in relation to another, more recent killing.]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly criticized the tactic in a post called “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.” It’s the same technique that deposed Eqyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak used to try to prevent the uprising that toppled him.

What’s true in Egypt is true in the U.K. is true in the United States. People will use the new communications infrastructures—cell phone networks, social media platforms, and such—to express grievance and to organize.

Western government officials may think that our lands are an idyll compared to the exotic savagery of the Middle East. In fact, we have people being killed by inept law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. just like they have people being killed by government thugs in the Middle East. What seems like a difference in kind is a difference in degree—and it’s no difference at all to the dead.

Among the prescriptions that flow from the London riots and BART’s communications censorship are the intense need for greater professionalism and reform of police practices. Wrongful killings precipitate (rightful) protest and (wrongful) violence and looting. Public policies in the area of entitlements and immigration that deny people a stake in their societies need a serious reassessment.

But we also need to keep in mind the propensity of government officials—in all governments—to seek control of communications infrastructure when it serves their goals. From the perspective of the free-speaking citizen, centralization of communications infrastructure is a key weakness. It gives fearful government authorities a place to go when they want to attack the public’s ability to organize and speak.

The Internet itself is a distributed, packet-switched network that generally resists censorship and manipulation. Internet service, however, is relatively centralized, with a small number of providers giving most Americans the bulk of their access. In the name of “net neutrality,” the U.S. government is working to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could later use for censorship or protest suppression. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also relatively centralized. It is an important security to have many of them, and to have them insulated from government control. The best insulation is full decentralization, which is why I’m interested in the work of the Freedom Box Foundation and open source social networks like Diaspora.

The history of communications freedom is still being written. Here’s to hoping that “a Mubarak” is always a failure to control people through their access to media.