Every few years, the Bay Area is reminded of just how important public transportation is when labor negotiations arise at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).
Negotiations between BART management and unions lead to the inevitable talks and worries about a strike, threatening to give the region's already clogged freeways a coronary.
In 2000, BART unions got much of what they had asked for, including a 24% raise over four years.
"And this was happening just as people in the Bay Area were losing their jobs and the economy was going into the toilet," recalls Linton Johnson, BART media and public affairs department manager.
With more negotiations set for spring 2005, Johnson says, BART had learned its lesson and set out to communicate why the unions' demands this time were not just bad for BART, but also for the region, still crawling out of the recession.
This time, the unions wanted a 30% increase over three years, while BART's ridership and revenues were shrinking. And after passing along some of BART's pain to its riders in the form of two fare increases, BART bet that "the public would go crazy over the fact that [the unions] wanted more," says Johnson.
Early in the year, BART commissioned a poll that showed that, while the public did not hold BART management in the highest regard, union management fared worse.
"Our goal was to focus on the union management, not the unions," explains Johnson. "We also wanted to keep politicians out of it. They got very involved last time. We wanted our board to be able to make a decision without outside influence. But we knew it would be tough, since the Bay Area is so pro-union."
So BART settled on a single, concise message that it would repeat throughout the negotiations and run-up to a potential strike - "What's good for riders is good for BART." And Johnson believed that riders would see that a 30% pay increase, following a 24% pay increase and two fare increases, wasn't good for riders or BART.
BART hired Singer Associates to help hone messaging and drive home key points.
"What was most important in getting a fair settlement was explaining the exceptional level of pay and benefits that transit workers already possessed," explains agency president Sam Singer. "Their demands were far greater than a regular blue-collar - or even white-collar - worker in the Bay Area."
BART and Singer also provided data on what BART transit workers made compared to the average resident. "As we got closer to the negotiation deadline, we wanted people to know that we were going to face a $100 million deficit over the next four years," says Johnson. "We also let them know that we weren't going to raise fares again."
In that context and against the backdrop of a region slowly emerging from a recession, it made the unions' demands look "out of whack," adds Singer.
In the end, management and the unions agreed to a four-year deal with no raise the first year, a 2% increase the second and third years, and a 3% increase in the fourth year.
"We had three spokespeople throughout all of this, all repeating the same simple message," says Johnson, adding that he felt the unions failed to stick to a coherent message.
The simple facts - BART's deficit, the fare increases, the down economy, and the average Bay Area resident's salary - portrayed the unions' demands as unrealistic. Public opinion, often voiced in letters to the editor, was on BART management's side going into the final stretch of negotiations, says Singer.
BART will continue stressing the "what's good for riders is good for BART" message as it rebuilds its ridership.
PR team: BART (Oakland, CA) and Singer Associates (San Francisco)
Campaign: Communicating labor negotiations
Time frame: March to August 2005