“No one wants the inconvenience associated with transportation workers taking action, but the District is leaving these workers little choice. This is about the middle class. We want the public to know what’s going on,” Tonisson said.
– Alex Tonisson, co-chair, Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition, SF Appeal, July 24, 2014

If you were receiving a pay and benefits package that averaged $125,678 per year (ref. Transparent California), in exchange for working a 37.5 hour week, would you feel exploited? What if along with that, you got 13 paid holidays per year, five weeks annual paid vacation (ref. MOU, page 20), and 12 paid sick days (MOU, page 16) per year that accumulated without limit?

Would you feel exploited? Would you have “little choice” but to go on strike?

Lest we encounter the usual objection that “top management” pay skews the average, please note the median annual pay and benefits for a worker with the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is $129,708, more than the average. And if anyone still thinks that “total compensation” – that is, direct pay plus employer paid benefits – is not an accurate reflection of what they earned, they are invited to participate in America’s labor force as an independent contractor, where they will turn over 15% of their gross earnings to Social Security and Medicare funds before they’ve paid a penny in income taxes or kept a dime for themselves – and then with what remains they can purchase their own health insurance and life insurance, set aside money for their vacations, holidays and sick leave, and save on their own for any retirement compensation apart from Social Security.

Here’s a thought experiment: What would the total compensation per hour be for the median wage earner who used all five weeks of vacation and all 13 holidays in a given year? The math is tough, but as Mr. Tonisson is quoted as saying, “we want the public to know what’s going on,” so here goes:

A veteran full-time employee of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, earning median pay of $129,708, who takes five weeks off for vacation and takes 2.2 weeks off for holidays, works 44.4 weeks per year. And at 37.5 hours per week, they work 1,665 hours per year. That, folks, equates to $77.90 per hour.

Not bad work if you can find it. But, to quote Mr. Tonisson, “a strike is very likely.”

San Francisco Bay Area residents have been through this fairly recently. As reported here less than one year ago, in the post “BART Strike is a Teachable Moment,” transit workers in the east bay decided their compensation package – averaging $127,675 per year with similar benefits, compelled them to go on strike. The result was a two-fold disaster, first because of the havoc wreaked on Bay Area commuters for one hideous week last Fall, and secondly because in the ensuing negotiations BART’s management pretty much caved in to union demands.

The suggestion that Golden Gate Transportation District workers are exploited and need to go on strike, given their median pay is $129,708 per year, is obviously ridiculous (by the way, take a look at their retiree pensions here). These workers wield monopoly control over transportation assets – and like any union that operates in the public sector – they have the ability to inflict dire inconvenience on the average private citizen, they exist in a financial environment where their employers have no compelling need to earn a profit, and they elect the members of the same management team they negotiate with.

This is indeed a recipe for exploitation, but not of the workers who staff these agencies, but of the public they supposedly serve.

There is a deeper issue, which addresses Tonisson’s points about the excessive cost-of-living in the Bay Area. The reason the Bay Area has a punishingly high cost-of-living is because of public policies that restrict land and energy development. These policies benefit public sector unions, who collect higher property taxes and whose pension funds ride the asset bubble, but destroy the aspirations of working families. The solutions unions ought to embrace are to advocate changing these destructive policies, instead of thinking only about their own narrow interests of pay and benefits which, collectively, become part of the problem.

To cite one very relevant example, the leadership of the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition should advocate – along with their construction worker brethren at the California Labor Federation – to scrap the “bullet train” and instead invest in upgrades to existing roads, rail, bridges and ports. That would create more jobs, cost less money, and greatly lower transportation costs in California.

Instead, California’s unions line up with the environmentalist lobby to support building an 800 mile long wall enclosing high speed rail, rivaling the infamous Iron Curtain in its scope and security features. A scar across our land, a monument to misguided union leadership allied with crony capitalism at its worst, costing hundreds of billions. An expensive blight, that will divert an infinitesimal fraction of the traffic currently stacked up on California’s under-built and under-maintained conventional transportation infrastructure.

Mr. Tonisson and his associates at the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition should be thinking about how to make transportation better and cheaper for Californians, instead of thinking about going on strike.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

 

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