“We let the workers know the union isn’t coming in to take over. We are coming to support you.”
Train workers for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) are 100% union and Oakland airport workers are 100% union, but the vital 4-mile rail network connector that runs between the airport and the Coliseum stop, maintained by Doppelmayr Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) employees is nonunion. Or at least they were until Aug. 10 when workers unionized to secure safety improvements, raises and better workplace policies.
Organizer Pablo Barrera has been a frequent traveler of BART for years. He has even met transit workers, talking with them on their commute to or from home. In April, it was serendipitous that he would receive a phone call from a Doppelmayr OAC employee requesting unionizing support.
“I rode the BART train. I talked to workers all the time and heard them out,” says Barrera. “They told me about crazy safety issues they had.”
Safety became a key issue that drove Doppelmayr OAC workers towards unionizing. Barrera asked Local 549 (Pittsburg, California) members about proper safety equipment. It became evident that BART workers didn’t have what they needed to work safely.
“They didn’t have the proper harnesses. I’m hearing from Boilermakers about the safety harness issues and what type of harnesses our BART guys actually need,” says Barrera. “We stayed on safety. Lord, forbid they drop a tool or have no vest.”
Workers were also making substantially less in wages than the unionized BART workers and workers at the airport.
“The airport is 100% union and BART is 100% union. Doppelmayr was not and they made about 50% less than those workers,” says Local 549 BM-ST Randy Thomas.
Local 549 members volunteered their weekends to meet with OAC workers at their homes to educate the workers about unions and encourage them through the organizing process.
“We let the workers know the union isn’t coming in to take over. We are coming to support you,” says Thomas. “We hope to earn their trust, help them educate themselves and teach them about their power.”
Local 549 members also empowered workers as they dealt with the company union-busting tactics.
“The company was trying to union bust to the end. Being nonunion at one point, I knew what they were going through,” says local 549 member Kesheona Darden. “I feel, being a Boilermaker and speaking from the union side, my positive experience with the union helped.”
By June, workers had enough and were ready for an election.
Thomas and Doppelmayr OAC worker, Matt Lucchese, spoke at the BART Board of Directors meeting to make public comments about the desire for the workers to organize. They also expressed safety concerns. The result was favorable, with BART board members vocalizing their support for workers’ rights to unionize.
Doppelmayr pushed back, but the workers and the organizing team pushed back harder. The company sought reprisal against Lucchese for speaking out, and in turn Local 549 filed an injunction for an unfair labor practice for retaliation and surveillance. Doppelmayr’s opposition helped BART workers gain backing from community leaders. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council Keith D. Brown and Treva Reid, Oakland councilmember for District 7, wrote letters of support, urging Doppelmayr to allow workers to unionize without further interference.
After four months, Doppelmayr OAC workers voted 22 to two to form a union. The perseverance of the workers standing together, the support from Local 549 and the organizing team’s knowledge and ability to pivot on strategy to combat union busting tactics ultimately led to a union victory. As a result, 28 new Boilermakers are members of L-549.