BART train at Civic Center station
Commuters, protestors and BART police have been crowding platforms and headlines, but one central figure in the unfolding BART story has been quiet until now.
This is the tale of the BART station agent and train operator: the members of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1555.
Local 1555 released a press release this week, calling out BART management for both a mismanagement of funds and repeatedly putting the personal safety of its employees at risk.
The two issues are connected. For instance, former General Manager Dorothy Duggar received a severance package of over $1 million dollars. The three-hour computer system failure last Tuesday was part of a communications system in need of maintenance. Maintenance on BART's core infrastructure is often delayed, so what is BART doing to prevent future communication failures?
"The main thing they're trying to do right now is the new cars," replied Antonette Bryant, president and business agent of ATU 1555. "Don't get me wrong, the floors and all that need changing, but when you're having a central control system break down, that's not good. I don't know all the ins and outs, but this stranded passengers for three hours, so your focus should be there."
By luck, I caught Bryant on the phone as this Tuesday's evening planned protest began to swell. During our conversation, she occasionally received word from her members, while I passively noted updates in the #OpBART twitter feed. We were both waiting to hear if BART police planned to cut power to the cell phone service in the stations. She was quick to note that station agents and train operators should expect to know about the loss of cell phone service before the general public.
"When you shut off cell phone service, you put people at serious risk," Bryant explained, referring to last Thursday's surprise shutdown of cellular service in four BART stations. The decision quickly drew comparisons to similar acts of suppression in Egypt and elsewhere. "Some of our board of directors were very disturbed by this."
BART's spokesman Linton Johnson continues to defend the shutdown. As reported by Al Jazeera, Johnson stated that "it really is just a cost-benefit analysis of where your freedom of speech begins to threaten the public safety.
"Johnson said that we haven't always had cell phone service, but we do now," Bryant asserted. "People depend on cell phones to reach their children, to coordinate transportation, to reach their families. You're going to cut that off during a period of civil unrest?"
Johnson's exact words, as reported by the Bay Citizen, were: “It is an amenity. We survived for years without cellphone service … Now they’re bitching and complaining that we turned it off for three hours?”
Bryant, who was a station agent for 20 years before being elected president of the local ATU in June, spoke not just of the necessity of cell phones in coordinating BART employees personal lives, but passenger lives, as well. During the system-wide computer malfunction last Tuesday, many operators relied on their cell phones to navigate passengers to stations. This experience was fresh in the minds of many train operators during the loss of cell phone service only two days later.
"If the computer's not working, and central can't talk to the train operators, they're using their cell phones to call central and say 'Hey, this is my train number, this is where I am.' You shut down phone service without telling anybody? Oh that's not a good look."
The idea to shut down cellular service did not originate within the BART police or some best practice guide on crowd control. Rather, it was suggested by its spokesman: Linton Johnson.
"Linton Johnson said that he just suggested it, he didn't make BART police do it. But why would you even suggest it?" asked Bryant. "It's not a well thought out plan. It goes to other things that have been done by the public relations department of BART."
This isn't the first time the ATU 1555 has taken issue with the way BART handled a public relations fiasco. Back in 2009, as union contract negotiations began to slow down, Johnson encouraged frustrated passengers to confront station agents and train operators directly. Though he later retracted that statement, people took him up on it anyway.
"People actually did that," Bryant recalled. "To know there are frontline people out there who are being attacked, they are being spit on, they are being hit, they are being verbally abused, is appalling … . You've got to use a lot more discretion on choices that you're making when you're making choices that affect the lives of your passengers and frontline employees."
Moving forward, the ATU 1555 asks that BART allow an investigation into its own practices, involving members of the ATU 1555, and the creation a solid plan for dealing with future events like the recent protests.
"We need a thorough investigation by an outside, independent regulatory agency to find answers," reads the press release. Bryant elaborates:
"I would like to see a plan. If an emergency situation is going to happen, this is what we're going to do. If someone needs to come in and tell them what to do, I'm ok with that and our members are ok with that. But it shouldn't be happenstance … There should be a playbook, and they should be soliciting input from our members who are on the frontline … I understand why they did it, but there are other steps that could have been taken prior to that. There should have been some sort of notification … I have no problem with the police, I have no problem with upper management, but you're leaving out key people."