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Democrats say no to Calif. ban on transit strikes

9:08 PM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
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Legislation inspired by 2013's Bay Area subway strike was rejected Monday by Democrats in the state Capitol, with no consensus on whether public transit workers should be banned from walking off the job.

The bill, authored by the Republican leader in the state Senate, was defeated on a party-line vote after a brief committee hearing.

"It literally holds the economy hostage," said Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, a reference to the broad impacts of a strike like the two brief shutdowns in July and December of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

Huff's bill would have banned a strike by workers at some 400 local public transit agencies across California, with sanctions imposed on both workers and unions that broke those rules.

The GOP senator began floating the idea during the BART impasse, and the idea gained some bipartisan support at the time.  But Democrats on the state Senate's Public Employment and Retirement Committee seemed persuaded by union opponents who called it too drastic an action to take.

"I think there could be more discussion in how we mediate, or resolve strikes," said committee chair Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose.

Some large cities across the U.S., including New York and Chicago, have no-strike laws when it comes to mass transit systems.  And supporters of a similar approach in California argue the state has pushed for cities to be built with subways, buses, and light rail more and more a staple of their economic lifeblood.  A strike, say critics, is as devastating as if it were police or fire crews walking off the job.

Union representatives at the Senate committee hearing took aim both at the approach of those who want a no-strike law and the idea that the BART episode should serve as any kind of motivation.

On the approach, the message was: the Capitol isn't the place to talk about this.

"We firmly believe if this right is going to be taken away, it should be bargained away at the collective bargaining table," said Michael Bolden of SEIU.  "It should not be legislated."

The most fierce rhetoric came from Willie Pelote, assistant director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Pelote claimed that BART executives had asked employees "to take less... and [now] come here and ask you to give them the right to do that even more."

"It's unconscionable," he said.

Huff, who knew the odds were long of seeing Senate Bill 423 stay alive, predicts the issue will come back.  And a statewide poll in late 2013 suggested while most voters still support the right of transit workers to strike, it was largely a split decision: 47 percent approved of the current system, 44 percent said transit workers should be banned from joining a picket line.

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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