How I Met Your Mother, or, When Unions Disrupt the Disruptors

On December 23, 2005, I went out on a date. It was one day after the transit strike that crippled New York had ended. I was in a foul mood.

The night before, you see, I had been on another date. Throughout dinner, the woman I was out with complained about the transit strike. About how much she was inconvenienced (she worked in the publishing industry and her commute into Manhattan had been screwed up), how good the workers had it, how bad public sector unions were.

So on the night of the 23rd, as I walked into the bar, I was ready for the worst. When I met the woman I was due to have a drink with, I asked her how she was doing. “Oh fine,” she said, “if you like meeting strange men at bars.” (We had met online; this was our first date.) “Well,” I said, “I can make this really easy on you. Where do you stand on the transit strike?” She replied instantly: “You’ve got a bunch of working-class people led by a guy with a really cool Caribbean accent. What’s not to like?” On the right side, not too earnest, with just a touch of irony.

Seventeen months later, we were married.

All of which is to say: I really hate privileged people complaining about public-sector unions, especially when those unions make things inconvenient for them.

On Friday, the transit workers who run BART in the Bay Area went on strike. The technorati pounced, complaining about the workers’ salaries and the hassle of their interrupted commutes. My  favorite tweet, making fun of the whole phenomenon, was this one:

BART workers make a base pay of about $60,000. That’s $15,000 less than what it takes for a family of four “to get by” in the Bay Area. Even if you assume that that family has two wage earners making $60,000 apiece, that combined salary would put them above the median household income for the Bay Area but hardly make them rich. Which is exactly what union jobs are supposed to do.

But in the imagination of the high-tech professionals of the Bay Area, that’s precisely the problem with union jobs. (Or perhaps they have no idea what a middle-class life actually looks like—and costs.)

In any event, union workers—and union workers on strike—really piss these people off. So much so that one Twitter exec blurted this out:

What’s brown and black and looks great on someone causing the #BARTstrike? A Doberman. (Toooo angry? Long day in the car.)

As it happens, wages aren’t even the real issue dividing the BART workers from management. It’s work rules, and more important, control over work rules. Turns out transit workers like to have some control over their working environment. Not unlike all those high tech assholes in Silicon Valley.

The technorati like to think of themselves and their gizmos as “disruptors.” They want to see  everything disrupted—except their morning commute.


  1. Erik October 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm | #

    And yesterday two BART workers were killed on the job. Work rules also concern safety. Too soon too know what happened, so I won’t speculate. But it certainly makes the comments about BART workers getting paid too much even more vile.

  2. Roquentin October 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm | #

    There’s a petit-bourgeois mindset that it’s really hard to avoid in corporate America. It goes something like this, “There’s no union looking out for my interests, why should they have one?” The irony being that that the answer to that question never seems to be “why can’t office workers in the private sector put together a union of their own?” but always turns into an attack on working class people and the public sector on the whole. I want to make it clear that I’m speaking mostly about workers on the lower rungs of white collar life, because at the executive level it’s more traditional class based antagonism.

    I think at least some of it is because it’s easier to live your life the way it is you believe their is no alternative. Stable, unionized employment makes it crystal clear that it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s such a powerful, pervasive and irrational emotion that I can feel even in myself sometimes and have to be careful to understand and control it.

    It’s also a personal thing, because I remember my father’s descent into reactionary, neoliberal politics all too well. He’d went to college late in life, got a degree, and ended up in middle management at a power plant, which translated into just far enough up the food chain to be ineligible for union membership. His resentment was palpable and dovetailed perfectly with getting older, making more money, and going to church a lot. In other words, he became a cliche’. We were in deeply conservative part of an otherwise “blue” state, which certainly didn’t help matters any. I got spoon fed a whole lot of it before I even knew what it was and would spend a whole lot of years undoing it. So much so that I sometimes say that my 20s were defined by losing faith in Christianity and capitalism, those two great creeds of my youth.

    In his defense the unions were very corrupt and I still cringe when people try to paint a rosy picture of what working class, union life is like culturally having experienced it firsthand. Still, it’s no excuse….

    • Harold October 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm | #

      Agreed, absolutely. According to the comments on the SFGate online article, I’m of the opinion that this is all jealousy because the commenters don’t have an employee group willing and able to go to management to make things better for them like the BART employees do.

      If we did, maybe we all could have more pay to do less and more time to spend with family and our own lives, instead of trying to one-up other employees on who can slave the most and the longest on things most of us wouldn’t care about if we didn’t need the paycheck.

      Absolutely shameful…instead of trying to get more representation in more industries, these people are infuriated because someone does.

  3. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) October 20, 2013 at 8:14 pm | #

    Great story! Strikes do have a way of bringing out the best & the worst in people. Your story tips its hat to both.

  4. Reza October 20, 2013 at 9:15 pm | #

    I wish you all the best in your wonderful marriage. I also hope that if by any remote chance your marriage runs into troubled waters – as mine did many years ago with a “revolutionary” woman – you will not blame the 2005 transit strikes, as I did all the 1960s “revolutionaries”. Reza

  5. Hangaku Gozen October 21, 2013 at 12:09 am | #

    Interestingly, it’s the technorati that’s made the San Francisco area too expensive for middle- and working-class families to live in. Thanks to an influx of high-salaried employees from tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, rents have doubled in the city of San Francisco, while condo construction and conversions have skyrocketed. It would be a lot worse if the city didn’t have rent control regulations, but landlords have been trying to circumvent the rules by driving out long-time tenants through intimidation or simple neglect. (“Oops, forgot to turn on the heat. Well, that’s okay, we ‘normally’ have a mild fall, right?”) In the meantime, public schools in the city are being shut down on the argument that enrollment is shrinking—the technorati either don’t have children or they opt to send their offspring to private schools—and communities are being asked to support neighborhood library branches and parks that are in constant danger of being closed, arguably for lack of funds in the city’s budget. Apparently the prosperity that technology is supposed to bring to the city hasn’t spread to the public sector.

    One thing that hasn’t changed is the attitude among the city’s affluent residents that nothing should ever inconvenience them, whether it’s a strike, a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk (it’s against the law now to sit on a San Francisco sidewalk) or a demonstration by Occupy protesters in the financial district.

  6. Jason Schulman October 21, 2013 at 1:17 am | #

    During my grad schools days I defended the 2005 TWU strike to a fellow graduate who had a background in — get this — union organizing. She took the MTA’s side. I wish I could remember what her reasoning was. I was dumbfounded.

  7. Jack Mitchell October 21, 2013 at 2:13 am | #

    I am totally unfamiliar with the BART strike and the earlier NYC transit strike you reference. But if you think transit strikes primarily inconvenience the upper middle class, I am dumbfounded. That is certainly not the case in cities without subways, where (generally speaking) the middle class drives and the working class takes the bus. In Ottawa a few years ago there was a bus strike in the middle of the winter (think minus 30 most of the time) that lasted five weeks. Working class people didn’t stay home, they still hauled themselves to work their minimum-wage jobs serving middle-class people at grocery checkouts and gas stations, but they . . . walked. For five weeks, in the dead of winter. Ditto a couple of years ago here in Halifax in 2012, six weeks. Were the city governments trying to break the unions? Were they trying to roll back wages? Were they going to screw the bus drivers on pensions? NO! In both cases the ONLY issue was whether or not the union would still be allowed to decide scheduling for their workers, a fiddle to coordinate sick-day replacements at twice the regular wage. That was it! And meanwhile literally half the working class was trooping through the snow and sleet. This was the oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie — the bourgeoisie being the transit unions. Retweet that.

    • Jonny Butter October 21, 2013 at 9:55 am | #

      if you think transit strikes primarily inconvenience the upper middle class, I am dumbfounded.

      Love the weasel words people use around here lately! Ahem: ‘primarily’. Yes, if he thought that transit strikes primarily inconvenienced upper middle class people, I would be dumbfounded too. Dumbfounded, I tell you! Agog! So?

      This was the oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie

      No. Working class was already oppressed before the strike. By your logic the best thing for the working class is for tenuously middle class people to be immiserated so that they too are working class. Pretzel logic.

      In the situation at hand (BART) you want to blame middle class people – and not all that securely-middle class people – for the sins of upper class people (and also what we call, euphemistically ‘upper middle class’). Notice that this strike is not about money but about work rules. Corey’s point is that management would rather have a strike than negotiate about work/safety rules. Now, it’s possible that the union-proposed rules could have a financial impact, but that is neither established nor is it even claimed by anyone that I am aware of.

      For those of you who don’t read this blog that much, there is a thread here: it seems that social control is more important to a preponderance of corporate management types than a marginal amount of revenue. IOW, when faced with the choice of giving up control – over things like work rules – or possibly losing a little money, they almost always choose to possibly lose a little money. So even though the workers actually do the job everyday, they oughtn’t have any independent input, because…..because why?

      • Jack Mitchell October 21, 2013 at 11:45 am | #

        So the working class is already oppressed by the general social arrangement. Given that a successful strike / negotiation will have absolutely zero impact on the working class — it will slightly benefit the middle-class transit workers — the whole business has nothing to do with social justice. When middle class workers quarrel with middle class taxpayers, that’s supposed to provoke leftist empathy? Give me a break.

        I am not that familiar with this blog and haven’t followed the thread of argument you outline. But I am strongly in favour of the government being able to deliver public services without input from unions, apparently a point of dispute in the BART strike. The idea that public sector workers are stakeholders has created, among other things, the police state you enjoy in the USA and which is spreading to Canada, via prison guard unions and the police unions which effectively immunise police violence. The infinite loop of consultation and cooperation etc. has, furthermore, made government services synonymous, in much of the public mind, with torpor, thus discrediting the idea of government intervention with a public — e.g. the working poor — who should be strongly in favour of it! Elected officials need to be able to crack the whip and get results. If the vast urban underclass in the USA, and the vast social problem of (say) aboriginal poverty in Canada, are ever going to be tackled, we need public servants who are willing to put in the time and effort to implement radical new policies. The public sector unions, by contrast, are deeply invested in the status quo — they are one of many institutions actively preventing reform.

      • Jonny Butter October 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm | #

        Jack, you don’t seem to know much about US politics, which is alright since you are a Canadian! But stick to what you know or learn to understand what you don’t, please. The idea that public sector unions are the cause of a nascent police state in the US is not only profoundly ignorant, but frankly bizarre. I would be very surprised if that were the case in Canada either, but will reserve judgement, since I don’t know much about Canadian institutions.

        Let me leave you with this, though: I gather than there has been some limited pushback against unions in Canada over recent years. In the US, there has been a 30+ year sustained *war* against unions. Fewer and fewer Americans every year are in unions – I believe the figure for 2012 was about 11%. What is it for Canada? Around 30%, right (almost triple)? This idea that surging unionism in the US is gushing across the border and infecting Canada is pure, and weird, fantasy.

        • Jack Mitchell October 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm | #

          I am in favour of trade unions! I am glad the figure is somewhat higher in Canada — though we have a larger public sector than you do, which must contribute to that 30% figure — and I hate the war on unions undertaken by Scott Walker and his type.

          You don’t think the police unions and prison guard unions are in part responsible for the rise of authoritarianism? When I lived in California, the enormous prison guard union was among the single biggest contributors to election campaigns. Here in Canada barely a week goes by without somebody being let off the hook for tasering a deranged 80-year-old, even if our system of incarceration is (for now) less draconian. I don’t blame the BART union for that kind of thing, obviously, I just cite the police / prison unions as an example of how public sector workers should not be allowed to influence policy.

          But, to return to the real point, I just think it is crazy to make a union like the BART workers’ one the poster child for trade unionism. Private sector trade unions (long may they flourish) inconvenience shareholders, and they’re just the cost of doing business ina free society; public sector unions inconvenience taxpayers (who include the very poor, who pay taxes through rent) by holding hostage the most vulnerable, not just on the annual balance sheet but in the very tangible way of preventing them from (in this case) getting to their minimum-wage (i.e grueling) work. Of course this is the real world and maybe holding the very poor hostage is just part of Realpolitik — there’s enough of that to go ’round — but it’s frankly nauseating to read would-be leftists celebrating the agony of the very poor. It makes me think that neither you, nor the author here, nor the author’s spouse, has actually ever befriended an adult minimum-wage worker in your lives.

          • Corey Robin October 21, 2013 at 1:48 pm | #

            “I hate the war on unions undertaken by Scott Walker and his type.”

            “Public sector unions inconvenience taxpayers (who include the very poor, who pay taxes through rent) by holding hostage the most vulnerable, not just on the annual balance sheet but in the very tangible way of preventing them from (in this case) getting to their minimum-wage (i.e grueling) work.”

            You cannot hold to both of these statements at the same time. Since the unions that Scott Walker went after were public sector unions, you have to be a firm supporter of his. Own it, baby, own it.

            On the topic of the poor, it’s interesting that you’ve never bothered to look at any data as to exactly who rides BART. Seventy percent of BART’s ridership makes over $50,000 and more than 50% of its ridership makes over $75,000. Also 68% of the ridership has a car to use as an alternative. The notion that it is the poor who are most targeted by this strike is laughable since it seems that it is not mostly poor people who use the BART.

            In addition, nowhere in your discussion do you mention the well documented fact that unions are among the leading institutions in our society that actually help poor people the most. First, the actual wages and benefits they provide. Second, the way they set prevailing wages in a locality: other employers have to keep and offer comparable wages and benefits in order to attract workers (studies by Mishel and others have shown that this type of benefit overwhelmingly accrues to those who are poor and low wage, women, and people of color). And, lastly, you forget that in some places it is the government that is the largest employer (often of women and people of color). So if public sector unions are doing their job of securing higher wages and benefits, the people who benefit most will tend to be the people on the lower end of the economic scale. (I won’t even get into the fact here that it is unions, esp. public sector unions, who are the vociferous in the defense of Social Security, Medicaid, and other programs that benefit the poor.)

            This is why during the NYC transit strike, if you look at the polls, the single group that was most likely to side with the transit workers were blacks, who tend to be among the poorest people in New York. Next were Latinos. While the polls didn’t cross-tabulate for income, the fact that people who tend to fall on the lower end of the income scale were so supportive of the workers should tell you something.

          • Jack Mitchell October 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm | #

            The whole point of my comments here is that it is indeed possible to dislike union-busting of the Scott Walker type — which is undertaken from anti-government animus, for the very reason that government is supposed to help the poor — and my own hostility to public sector unions, which is for the very opposite reason. If you can’t see the difference, you aren’t really interested in helping the poor, you’re just carrying water for your fellow unionised middle-class people — and self-validating, naturally.

            I said at the outset that I have not gone into the details of either the BART transit strike of the NYC transit strike that had such a happy matrimonial result. I can tell you for a fact, however, that working-class sympathy for bus drivers in the two strikes I did describe and am familiar with was not even remotely with the bus drivers making everybody walk to work in the cold. You don’t seem to have done your homework on those strikes, shockingly.

          • Corey Robin October 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm | #

            “I have not gone into the details of either the BART transit strike or the NYC transit strike.”

            And yet here you are, still talking. Never ceases to amaze me.

          • Jack Mitchell October 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm | #

            Sorry, is it house rules here that you’re not allowed to make a general point while saying “I am making a general point”?

      • Hangaku Gozen October 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm | #

        BART is actually the most expensive form of public transportation in the Bay Area. The price of taking the BART from, for instance, downtown San Francisco to the airport is $8.50. Bus fare is just $2, though it takes much longer, of course. If you’re living on minimum wage in the city, you don’t take BART, which was constructed to serve the affluent bedroom communities in the south and east Bay Area anyway.

        The thought of a Twitter exec taking the bus makes me laugh. All of those guys are driving their Beemers into the city now, and they’re mad because traffic is heavy?

  8. Glenn October 21, 2013 at 11:48 am | #

    Getting ahead and being ahead is all relative.

    It matters little to the envious unfaithful if the means of getting ahead is reduced to pushing others down.

    Some choose to live as though the well being of others does matter and others choose to live like crabs in a bucket. Conditionally, that is, as long as they are doing the climbing over and not being climbed over.

  9. Alice Dubiel (@odaraia) October 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm | #

    Fun story. I’m with you but I have to tune out those complainers. I think the expectation that things should always be smooth and run efficiently is predicated on the same logic that increased “efficiency” = “productivity” and that we can squeeze out more. It sets up crisis management, a stress-inducing way to live. This “logic” is certainly classist and reflects entitled attitudes, but it’s promoted at worksites and can be internalized in many areas of life. Your story points out the importance of keeping the basics simple and supportive in home life.

  10. casino implosion October 21, 2013 at 4:39 pm | #

    Weird. Just yesterday I was playing with the phrase “disrupt the disrupters” in my head, after reading a Baffler piece on annoying tech dorks at SXSW. “These people, always talking about innovating and disrupting everything.” said I to myself. ” I’m holding out for the day when they get a taste of their own medicine, rammed right down their throats.”

    gmta corey

  11. John October 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm | #

    Great post. One question/quibble: you write that even a two-wage family at the BART base pay would “hardly make them rich. Which is exactly what union jobs are supposed to do.”

    Are unions supposed to make workers “rich”? I’ve never heard that assertion — fairly paid — yes, well compensated — yes, but “rich” seems off. I think it’s because I consider unions to be organizations devoted to social justice, and I associate ambitions of “getting rich” with getting ahead of everyone else.

    This may be my privilege talking — I’m not rich and I’m underemployed, but I’ve never been indigent. But at the very least promoting unions as institutions for the rich (or aspirationals!) isn’t a great selling point.

    • Corey Robin October 21, 2013 at 8:27 pm | #

      Sorry, just badly worded. Unions are supposed to lift people above the median but not make them rich. That’s what I meant. My apologies for the confusion.

  12. traf October 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm | #

    I’m not sure who is covered under your umbrella term, “technorati.” Tell me I’m oversensitive, but It seems to paint all technology workers with the libertarian brush. If you mean Tech executives, you’re probably correct, but you should make that clear.

    As a non-management technologist for many years, I’ve found many of my coworkers are quite progressive, although not many are policy junkies. Edward Snowden, anyone?

    • Corey Robin October 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm | #

      Yes, I think that’s a fair point.

  13. BarryB October 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm | #

    There’s an image making its way around social sites (aka data miners) right now that’s funny but makes a point. It shows a Randian Atlas Shrugged-like book cover, with the title, “I’ve Got Mine. Fuck You.” That’s one of the most basic impulses working right now in favor of the weasels out to cripple unions: all that matters is my pile of rocks. And everyone else? Either they don’t deserve any, because they don’t work hard enough, or they’re stupid, or they’re losers, or they’ll magically get taken care of. Or there’s the old lie that they’re actually richer than the rest of us, because, hey, public sector!

    Against selfishness appealed to by big bucks who own the government, it’s possible to win battles for betters workplace rules and wages. But I can’t help thinking it’s going to be a lot tougher to win the overall PR war in the eye of the public.

  14. Crystal October 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm | #

    $60,000 a year? My single mother supported four kids and herself with less than $25,000. Where’s the justice there?

    • Harold October 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm | #

      Just think of what she could have done if she’d had a union job and made the $60,000 like the BART workers do.

      I’m not belittling your mother’s struggle, but if all industries were unionized, we wouldn’t have to worry about the desperate poverty so many American families find themselves in.

      • BarryB October 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm | #

        I may be wrong, but I suspect Crystal of using that quality we USians are accused by Brits of lacking, irony.

    • Will Rubenstein October 24, 2013 at 11:33 am | #

      And back in MY day, I made five dollars a day at the Ford plant and I was gosh-darned grateful! Why do lazy workers these days think they deserve five whole dollars for just one hour? (Which is to say, clarify where and when you grew up or your point is meaningless: cost of living at the time and place of your upbringing ≠ cost of living at all times in all places.)

      • Jack Mitchell October 24, 2013 at 11:52 am | #

        Only middle-class leftists completely insulated from reality, or Randians — hard to tell the difference sometimes — could find it in their hearts to mock this comment by Crystal.

        “The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If a minimum wage worker is employed full-time (forty hours per week for 52 weeks), that worker would earn $15,080 annually.”

        “Among those paid by the hour, 1.6 million earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. About 2.0 million had wages below the federal minimum.”

        The highest minimum wage is $9.19, in Washington DC.

        Don’t worry, millions of minimum-wage-earning people! Just as soon as Corey Rubin & Co. raise the percentage of unionised workers from 11% to 100% — details TBA in the 23rd century — you’ll get to ride the bus again instead of walking.

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