When thousands of BART workers went on strike this week over salaries, benefits, and safety concerns and shut down the San Francisco Bay Area’s main public transit system, the news made national headlines.
The strike also laid bare a tricky cultural divide in the Bay Area, between traffic-weary tech workers who drive the local economy, and blue collar transit workers who feel left behind.
Tech workers bring lots of change to San Francisco Twitter headquarters has lured other companies to a stretch of Market Street. The city’s economy is growing, but not everyone benefits.
A BART worker’s base salary is about $60,000 a year. Sounds pretty good, but it’s less than the $74,341 a family of four needs to get by in the pricey Bay Area, according to a recent study by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, based in Oakland.
BART train operator Eddie Turner, who was picketing earlier this week, said as the local tech industry booms and drives up the cost of living, workers like him, who haven’t gotten a raise since 2009, should get a boost too.
“BART is running a surplus,” Turner said. “This system works and we are the people who make it work.”
But plenty of the people who depend on the BART system to get to work, see things differently.
Richard White is the CEO of a San Francisco tech company called UserVoice. He was on a plane somewhere over Arkansas when he emailed me a recording he’d made on his iphone (a surreal feat made possible thanks in large part to Bay Area tech innovations), describing his feelings about the strike.
He called it a fiasco, snarling traffic and wasting hours of dozens of his staff’s time. And while he said he had sympathy for BART workers not getting a raise in four years, he didn’t have that much sympathy.
“One of the guys on our team said he’s putting in his two-weeks notice once he found out what he could make working for BART,” White said, joking. His solution to address those disgruntled BART workers? “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”
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Sarah Lacy, founder of tech news site Pando Daily, which is based in San Francisco, said “If I had more friends who were BART drivers, I would probably be very sympathetic to their cause, and if they had more friends who were building companies they would probably realize we’re not all millionaires, and we’re actually working pretty hard to build something.”
She said the BART strike exacerbated what she sees as a philosophical divide in the Bay Area. “People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.”
But BART worker Kay Wilson, who was on strike this week, said she was doing what made sense for any working person, in a tech job or a transit job — trying to make a living in an expensive region. “I make no apologies for wanting to go to work, do my job well, and get paid for that,” she said.