Media misses connection between BART tragedy and settlement

Investigators look at how this train killed two people, but journalists fail to probe the underlying reasons.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

BART continues to stonewall important questions about whether it was training scab drivers to break the recent strike by its unions when its trainee-driven train killed two workers on Oct. 19 — a stance made possible by the failure of the mainstream media to connect the dots or correct the anti-union bias that characterized its coverage of this long labor impasse.

The failure of local journalists to highlight the connection between that tragedy and the subsequent decision by the district to suddenly soften its stance and sweeten its offer — within hours of the National Transportation Safety Board revealing that a trainee was driving and that BART’s “maintenance run” story was a deception — is as myopic as it is appalling.

After all, the daily newpapers, television stations, and wire services did finally, dutifully report that a trainee was driving, even as they failed to point out to readers and viewers the significance of that disclosure or ask the district, “Why were you training drivers during a strike? Were you planning to offer service during the strike?”

We have asked those questions of the district, and when we got misleading obfuscations, we asked again and again, and our questions are still being largely ignored (actually, we just got a limited but important response, see below). And here’s why they matter: Because if the district was planning to run trains during the strike, it reinforces the unions’ contention that the district was hard-bargaining to force a strike that it was preparing to break, a plan that became untenable when two people died, just as the unions warned might happen if the district ran trains without experienced drivers.

This should be a huge scandal, the kind of thing that might force General Manager Grace Crunican to resign and BART directors to lose their seats — except for the fact that the media is ignoring this simple, obvious narrative and failing to do its job.

The East Bay Express, which today published an excellent article on how the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group (which includes the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, and San Jose Mercury News) mislead the public about the BART standoff, is the only other media outlet in the region to join the Bay Guardian in highlighting the relevant facts in this story.

Not only have these newspapers written some truly atrociously anti-worker editorials, but even the supposedly objective news stories have been clearly biased in their emphasis and omissions. Why else would they repeatedly emphasize a proposal by an obscure Republican member of the Orinda City Council to prohibit future BART strikes — a bit of election-related grandstanding that has no chance of passing in Democrat-controlled Sacramento — while failing to analyze why BART suddenly sweetened its offer beyond what Crunican said the district could afford?

But this could be a situation that backfires on local media managers considering that the truth will probably come out eventually, even if it’s long after the media spotlight has moved on. NTSB investigations can take up to a year, but they are remarkably thorough and it will probably eventually discuss why these drivers were being trained.

The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment announced yesterday that it will also hold a hearing to “get to the bottom” of the tragedy, and one can only hope that someone on that committee will grill the district about its intentions in running that ill-fated train and conducting new driver training just one day into the latest strike.

UPDATE: As I was posting this story, I finally heard back from BART spokesperson Alicia Trost, who made it sound like preparations to break the strike weren’t news — even though it may be news to most newspaper readers.

“The District has publicly acknowledged, dating back to a September 13, 2013 Metropolitan Transportation Commission subcommitee meeting, that BART has been training some non-union employees to operate limited passenger train service in the event of an extended strike if so authorized by the Board of Director. The Board was never requested to authorize revenue service during the strike,” she wrote by email.

Yet those public aknowledgements don’t appear to have made it to the public. And when the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross did run an anonymously sourced item breaking the news that BART may be training replacement drivers, BART refused to comment, the duo soft-peddled the scoop, and the relevation failed to make it into the larger narratives the newspaper offered about BART.

And even now, Trost followed up her admission by minimizing its importance, saying that the ill-fated train was also being run for maintenance purposes, which the NTSB had also reported.

“BART has to ‘exercise the system’ by running trains on the tracks to prevent rust build up. Rust can build up quickly and will interfere with train service. BART continued to run inspection trains throughout the entire strike just as it did during the July strike,” she wrote.

But the real issue is whether the district deliberately triggered two strikes that the heavily impacted public angrily blamed on workers, thanks largely to how the standoff had been cast by the mainstream media and the district. After all, BART chose a notoriously anti-union labor consultant as its lead negotiator, a decision that even Willie Brown criticized in his Sunday column, although Brown cast the district as just dumb instead of intentionally forcing a strike.

I’m still waiting for Trost to answer my follow-up questions, and I’ll update this post if and when I hear back. I’m also still waiting to hear from BART Board President Tom Radulovich, whose progressive credibility has been tarnished in the eyes of some for playing such a lead role in BART’s media strategy.

Thankfully, the divisive standoff between BART and its unions seems to be over, but the questions about what really drove it and how its conclusion came about are still relevant and largely unanswered. And that says a great deal about the state of journalism today.


Even though SFBG really doesn't do any investigative journalism any more, and is little more than an opinionated and biased blog at this point.

I'm not buying what you're selling, and I don't much like you trying to politicizea tragic accident either.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 5:46 am

Well first off, you're talking about a 'writer' who wrote that the "Americas Cup Is Killing People" after a 41 year old lawyer died of a heart attack during the rescheduled Alcatraz Triathalon. When commenters chastised him he said that he was just having some fun with the man's death.

In this case the media was quite clear that Bart management was exploring the possibility of running limited service in the event of a strike. It was even on the TV stations. Don't know WTF that Steven is babbling about.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 6:26 am

Perhaps you could provide a link or two to back up your assertion that this angle was well covered because I looked and I can't find it. We've also gone back to review the MTC meeting when BART supposedly announced that it was preparing to offer service during the strike, and it never came up during the first 45 minutes that we listened to or in media coverage. ATU's lawsuit seeking to prevent such service as dangerous was also ignored until we reported it. And even the Chron seems to have forgotten about its own training scoop by the next day when the strike was settled. Or maybe I just missed the voluminous coverage of this angle, so I looked forward to you helping me out with some links, thanks a lot.

Posted by Steven T. on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 7:24 am

Here ya go:

"BART had said it would train managers to operate trains in order to provide a limited shuttle service during the walkout. Unions for the striking workers had warned that it would be dangerous to allow inexperienced operators to drive the trains."

Maybe they didn't handle the damage control after the tragedy as well as they could have but the concept that they were hiding the fact that they were training new train operators was well covered by journalists.

Sorry to burst your silly bubble.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:13 am

Thanks for reinforcing my point, Guest. The best you could come up with was a brief in an East Coast newspaper, and one that still didn't connect the dots between the tragedy and the settlement. But at least the NYT did offer a clearer statement about BART training workers to operate limited service and the unions' warning against that than anything that appeared in the local media, and maybe that article did help BART realize that its plan to offer replacement service was no longer viable. But my point was that the mainstream media in the Bay Area, which is where most people here get their news and which has the most power to raise important issues that might influence public opinion and force the district to come clean, is failing on this issue.  

Posted by steven on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 10:19 am

Steven, I contest your use of the word "failing" because it is based on faulty presumptions that Bay Area corporate media would abandon its mission of pimping for the neoliberals in order to present anything resembling balance.

Bay Area media succeeded at representing the interests that it is paid to represent.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 10:29 am

Fine. The New York Times wasn't good enough for you. Try this one:

"An informed transit insider tells us that the BART train that struck and killed two workers on the tracks near the Walnut Creek station on Saturday was on a strike-related training run at the time of the accident.

"They were practicing training people how to operate and have the skills in the event of an extended strike," said the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

OK??? Is it starting to sink in that maybe you made yet another foolish error?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:52 am

Your reading comprehension skills aren't very strong, Mr. Guest. I linked to and discussed that article in my post. Read what I wrote about it, slowly and carefully, and if you still have any questions about my thesis, let me know.  

Posted by steven on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

mentioning that in the past there had been managers who ran trains during strikes and that they were looking into that option.

After the deaths there was an article explaining the BART 15 second rule as well, a rule that puts safety on the people on the tracks not the operator.

Likely the people working on the trains assumed that BART was running no trains and didn't adhere to the 15 second rule.

Posted by nixon on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

Agree, and it doesn't really matter who's driving the train, it is highly unreasonable to assume that it will stop in time - or at all - for anyone on the track. Commons sense would suggest to sidestep or to throw oneself to the ground out of harms way.

I'm sure something else was involved and that it is an internal matter.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 01, 2013 @ 8:03 am

of course not you're just a paid troll of the BART.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 05, 2013 @ 5:59 pm
Posted by Guest on Nov. 05, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

Getting BART running again was a FACE SAVER for both parties to have the strike ended.
The accident that killed those two track workers is a past issue, by you trying to capitalize of their deaths for an article is really poor taste, not to say what it does to the two family's .

Posted by Support Weiner on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 10:49 am

even more, the claim that somehow the workers "won". The workers cannot have won if two of them are dead, in any event. But if you look at the terms of the final agreement, it is almost identical to the one the management had offered the previous week. The unions rejected that and then walked out.

I think the deaths focused the two sides on the real issues, and both sides adjusted their position, enabling a resolution. But the strike was un-necessary and the deaths can be blamed on both sides and not just the management.

Management got pension contributions, which was a huge win for them, and the ability to gradually getting rid of the insane work practices. I personally think they should have held out for more, but understand why they didn't.

So yes, Steven should move on and stop trying to stir up an issue that is now in the past.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:04 am

Do we honor the dead by ignoring them and the circumstances surrounding their deaths? No, I don't think we do, and I think it was a cop-out for the district to refuse to answer reporters' questions about it under the guise of mourning. This wasn't just losing a member of the "BART family" (cue the violins) -- it was a tragedy for which the district was at least partially liable, and thus a legitimate area of journalistic, legal, and regulator inquiry. 

As for the second Guest's comment, no, the district's offer wasn't the same as before the tragedy. It was a 15.5 percent raise instead of its "last, best, and final offer" of 12 percent, as well as dropping its last minute insistence on sweeping authority over work rules (which was what really caused the second strike, as both sides have said, and it had nothing to do with the district's bogus claim that workers were scared of email) and agreeing to binding arbitration over the remaining differences, a reasonable union request that the district had refused right before the second strike. 

Why the sudden change of heart? Clearly, the district was willing to practice serious brinksmanship in twice triggering strikes and paying $400,000 to a notorious union buster. Clearly, the district thought it could get the unions to back down and accept its proposals, which would have meant more money for expansion plans and executive bonuses. Why would the district be so self-assured in its ability to break the strike? And if replacement service was only going to be a last resort after an "extended strike," as officials said, why were they training drivers immediately? C'mon, people (and especially my journalistic brethern), connect the dots. That's what good journalism is about, otherwise you're just stenographers to those in power. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

union members of the past by being petty and manipulative.

Having had to deal with the union bullshit artists first hand. One wonders if the unionists of 1930's gave their lives so that the various public employee unions could support, fireperson's drinking on the job, abusive cops, MUNI mechanics who punch in and go home to bed, BART employees who show up off and on, lazy and stupid city employees who get passed from department to department, etc...

Did these union members die on the docks so that the modern public employee union leadership could travel in circles with their fellow whine and cheese yuppies? Did they dream that one day that unions would become a political organization that lobbied on behalf on non union issues which a large number of members oppose?

Unions supporting this behavior cost the tax payers millions, and reinforces the view that being a terrible employee is an entitlement and it enforces the view of the public that we are being screwed.

I would guess that people owning businesses seeing this abuse by unions dig there heels in even more.

Posted by nixon on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

On Tuesday, October 22, good government advocate and U.S. Navy vet Ray Hartz was dragged out the Board of Supes meeting in handcuffs by two deputies, at the direction of David Chui.

Why? Ray had loudly said the word "Gestapo" and Chui said this was an outburst and therefore he was denying Ray the right to speak at public comment.

I've excerpt the SF Gov TV video of the incident last week:

Every week, the Supes, including the 'progressive' Avalos and Campos, the darlings of the Guardian, disrespect the voters and taxpayers by willy-nilly deciding when it's time for public comment. When it does happen, the Supes busy themselves with cruising the web or talking among themselves.

How about that Guardian reporting on what went down with Ray and how public comment at Tuesday meetings should be at a set time??

Posted by MPetrelis on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:31 am

On Tuesday, October 22, good government advocate and U.S. Navy vet Ray Hartz was dragged out the Board of Supes meeting in handcuffs by two deputies, at the direction of David Chui.

Why? Ray had loudly said the word "Gestapo" and Chui said this was an outburst and therefore he was denying Ray the right to speak at public comment.

I've excerpt the SF Gov TV video of the incident last week:

Every week, the Supes, including the 'progressive' Avalos and Campos, the darlings of the Guardian, disrespect the voters and taxpayers by willy-nilly deciding when it's time for public comment. When it does happen, the Supes busy themselves with cruising the web or talking among themselves.

How about that Guardian reporting on what went down with Ray and how public comment at Tuesday meetings should be at a set time??

Posted by MPetrelis on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:36 am

shrewdest move this dude ever enacted?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:55 am

And banning of future BART strikes may prevent more deaths in the future. That is the flip side of Steven's arguments - stupid, yes, but no more than this article.

Posted by Richmondman on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

As a member of one of the men who died I appreciate your article for telling the truth. So what if there was a labor dispute and a strike..that doesn't mean you should have a person who is not experience in training (management who hasn't drove a rain for over 15 years) training a person who has no idea about trains and the tracks. The blame is on Bart manager and board of directors. We will not let this go! They killed my family member because you went against what the CPUC and NTSB told you which was not to drive trains with people who are not trained. There is a reason why there is a 15 week training training course and tests (both written and performance exams and if they fail they are out of the program) and they can't even get to drive the train for the first 8 weeks of class as they need to know EVERYTHING about the system.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

Thanks for the feedback and for sharing your perspective. Throughout this contract impasse, the training that BART workers receive was consistently minimized by the district and critics of the unions, who circulated this dangerous "the trains drive themselves" meme that we tragically learned wasn't true. So it's no surprise that these same people want us all to just quickly move on and forget about it, which is the ultimate form of dishonoring the dead. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

This is precisely why I want highly trained, well compensated professionals who are not overworked to inattentiveness in control of those massive trains.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

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