Don’t ask if BART earnings are fair

Instead, ask if they’re necessary

The notoriously progressive Bay Area is alive today with the most anti-union fervor you’re likely to find this side of Alabama. The employees of the Bay’s beloved BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) network have been threatening to strike unless BART’s board acquiesces to big wage increases. For many Bay residents, the first strike, which lasted July 1-5, was their first inkling that the men and women who sweep the floors, fix the escalators, and drive the trains were doing so well for themselves. BART workers are the highest-paid public employees in the area and the highest-paid transit workers in the country. (Get more specifics at a project that a group of data visualizers and I have put together here.) The workers also enjoy levels of job security, pensions, health benefits, and opportunities for sweet overtime pay that few in other positions, even in the public sector, could ever dream about. I’ve heard many people say, “It’s unfair,” in the same breath as, “Are they hiring?’ Here, I’d like to argue that fairness is irrelevant to the whole discussion.

Defenders of the unions are right to point out that $90,000 per year is not enough money to buy the stereotypical American Dream of home ownership in the Bay. A three-bedroom, single-story house in a safe neighborhood, which $180,000 could land you in Houston, Charlotte, or even parts of Seattle, can easily fetch $600,000 here. Unaffordable housing is a result of the incredible weather, great pay in tech industries, a culture extremely intolerant of new buildings, and direct-democracy environmentalism that indulges NIMBY impulses like nowhere else but the Vatican. To get a taste of the intolerance: there was recently a giant fight in Palo Alto about plans to build affordable housing for poor old people.

This tiny room costs a lot in Berkeley. When I spoke up at a council meeting to allow new apartments nearby, on an abandoned lot full of crusties, people looked at me like I was crazy.

But the fairness argument misses something crucial: there is no rational basis for claiming the BART workers are fairly compensated. It’s instructive to compare their pay and packages to workers with similar education and positions, but there is massive variation in pay for every education level or job title. Lil Wayne has ten times as much money as Berkeley’s own Janet Yellen, who has less than Chamillionaire. And just as BART is a monopoly seller of subway rides, it is a monopsony buyer of subway labor, so there is no thriving, competitive local market for its workers such that we can compare people in exactly the same position. You also hear that the workers forewent raises during the recession, and now it’s fair to ‘make up’ for lost raises. But it’s unclear why drawing a line through past data and extending it to the present is some gold standard. In the 50's this would have meant depression wages just as US workers achieved a quality of life the whole world envied; in the 70's this would have meant skyrocketing inflation (which it did). Reasonable people can disagree, and disagree, and disagree.

The trouble is that, without close comparisons, to say a wage is “fair” assumes a sort of Platonic compensation package, floating in the ether, that we fumble towards in our negotiations…some correct price of an hour of work that we would settle on tomorrow if only we could find it. During the Middle Ages, this impulse was grounded in religious authority, with church leaders seeking Divine Will on the subject. But there are no magic numbers out there, so this gets us nowhere but an endless argument. There is so much noise in wage data that anyone can put the signal where he or she imagines.

check out my interactive visualization of Simpson’s Paradox

We can get somewhere if we ask, “What is a transit system for?” That is, why do we pump billions of dollars in capital and operating subsidies into these systems? The answer is “accessibility.” Transit makes desirable destinations more accessible to more people, especially the carless.

Accessibility isn’t the only buzzword thrown around when we build and expand transit networks, of course. You also hear about energy savings, economic development, traffic reduction, and social justice. But all other arguments should be auxiliary to whether the system makes destinations accessible, for good reason: the system won’t save any energy, stoke the fires of commerce, clear the freeways, or give the downtrodden more opportunities to work and shop unless people can actually ride around on the trains. That’s why my colleagues and I in the professional transportation field talk a lot about accessibility. It is the sin qua non.

Now, when voters start to fight about whether enough jobs are created in the tunnels themselves, or whether those jobs are paid too much or too little, we’re introducing an entirely alien purpose to the system. It becomes an accessibility machine and a Social Security system…a house divided…a Jimmy Dean Sausage and Chocolate Chip Pancake on a Stick, because pay and investment are two uses of the same money.

a house very, very divided

To be clear, I’m saying we should ignore the workers’ welfare beyond what is necessary to (a) provide the best ridership experience and (b) to guarantee BART workers the safety and living standard we regulate, at minimum, for all workers. No more and no less. If this shocks you, I’d invite you to entertain hypotheticals…edge cases.

Suppose there were some technology that rendered BART’s whole workforce unnecessary. Robots maybe. Or some super-efficient private contractor. The public would face a choice: we could lay off all the workers and use the savings to send trains more places, more frequently, and at a higher level of comfort and safety. Or we could carry on.

Using the technology would be unarguably worse for the workers…much, much worse than not receiving pay raises, because their current wages and benefits are so good they would have no chance to find anything similar anywhere else. But it would be much better for riders.

It’s not a stretch to assume we would make this decision without much ado. Voters would lay off the workers. Not because of some cost-benefit analysis about the gains to the riders against the losses of the workers, though. We would fire them all because making places accessible is what the system is for. It’s why we built it, which ferries in my next point.

Suppose there were no BART, but we were contemplating building it today. It’s a massively expensive investment to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. We would probably talk a lot about the energy savings, time savings etc. But one argument you probably would not hear is: “the system itself will employ a lot of people.” Why not? It would be obvious to everyone that, by spending the money on BART, our government must spend less on something else, and that means fewer jobs at the something else. Spending billions creates jobs, whether they’re at a new aqueduct, wind turbine plants, schools, hospitals, or [insert your favorite public expenditure here].

about $2 billion, or one third of the Bay Bridge extension, or 23,000 4-year civil engineering PhD students

So, if we would lay off the workers if we could, and if we wouldn’t hire them except to get something valuable, we apparently don’t count their welfare more than we do members of the general public. We should really be asking, then, “What can we get with the money?” If paying the BART workers more will guarantee more accessibility (by better service, perhaps) than any other use of the money, let’s do it. If not, BART should invest in one of those other uses.

Moreover, taking fairness off the table would assuage some of the animosity towards the workers. BART workers pay union dues to people whose job it is to get them as much money as possible. Just as we pay for BART to get accessibility, they pay their leaders a lot of money so they can get more money with less work in safer, more comfortable conditions. It is as amoral a transaction as Jerry Maguire shilling for his clients. For the workers, to not exercise their power for better wages, would be tantamount to choosing BART over their retirements and families. It’s insane to expect anything from them but a hard bargain.

BART is so big that it’s easy to lose sight of its purpose. Its concrete tunnels, now nearly 40 years old, seem like some awesome inheritance of nature, an immutable feature of the landscape. But it’s reaching outwards (its tendrils will touch Silicon Valley within five years), and there is wide scope for what, exactly, constitutes its service as far as schedules and cleanliness. The BART leaders are not greedy tycoons but rather elected officials and experienced public servants who can see what opportunities this money might buy if denied the workers. I encourage everyone to be excited about investments in BART, even as we sympathize with the workers’ perspective.

explore ridership facts here