OAKLAND -- Pete Castelli knows there are many ways to lose a labor fight, but he has no intention of leading BART workers to defeat.
The West Virginia native who now heads of one Northern California's largest unions started out organizing textile workers in the South until the denim plants went dark.
Nearly a decade later, when Castelli was working as an organizer in Sri Lanka, the factories stayed open, but workers disappeared. Police had no qualms about arresting and beating union activists, Castelli said. "I'd ask why someone wasn't at a meeting, and they'd tell me he's in jail."
Last year, Castelli was named executive director of SEIU Local 1021, a 52,000-member unit spanning from Fremont to the Oregon border. It's one of two unions that orchestrated the recent BART strike.
While the transit agency is today's adversary, Castelli, a 50-year-old Berkeley resident, said the real enemies -- big banks and unfettered capitalism -- haven't changed since he started union work 20 years ago.
As he sees it, the same forces that shuttered Southern textile mills in the 1990s and spurred Sri Lankan authorities to crack down on trade unionists are now taking aim at the pensions and benefits of Bay Area government workers.
A victory for BART employees, Castelli said, would be shared by all workers, even those in the private sector who lost their pensions years ago and are supporting BART management.
"What happened to our country that workers who want to retire, who don't want to pay tons of money on health care and who want to have a decent living, somehow have become vilified?" Castelli said.
Castelli and several of his deputies joined SEIU recently from the California Nurses Association, a union known for a willingness to strike and take strong political stands. "CNA is a fighting union and that is certainly something SEIU 1021 is trying to be, too," Castelli said.
Since Castelli took the reins last year, the union has organized three strikes, including a walkout at the Port of Oakland that quickly resulted in a generous contract.
The recent strikes at BART and the city of Oakland came on the first day union contracts expired. Hayward city workers also have authorized a strike as their contract comes to an end.
Castelli said SEIU is sending a message to government agencies that for years have used delay tactics to squeeze worker concessions. If employers let their contracts expire, Castelli said, "generally speaking from SEIU 1021, you're going to get a strike."
While the Oakland strikes resulted in little public outrage and quick management concessions, the BART strike produced angry riders and little traction at the bargaining table. "I think it may have backfired against them," said Sarah Anzia, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. "It seemed that there was a sizable chunk of the public who felt that BART employees overreached out of self interest."
Castelli was born in a small mining town, the grandson of a pro-union Italian-immigrant coal miner. He became a community organizer in southern Virginia after graduating from junior college and started working for the textile union while teaming up with it to close a hazardous-waste site.
"Pete was a bit of a rebel," said Harris Raynor, an SEIU southern regional director who mentored Castelli with the textile union. "He was the guy at every staff meeting who had the most questions. He doesn't accept the accepted truths before they are proven to him."
Castelli, a married father of two who wears a bear claw necklace, doesn't subscribe to the notion that a victory for public sector unions won't trickle down to other workers.
"Our answer is that if we lose, you lose," he said.
Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, said that in some industries private employers might feel pressure to keep up with gains in public sector compensation. But Stanford University professor Terry Moe, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said prior triumphs by public employee unions had no impact on the private sector, where employers cut benefits and shed pensions.
"Private employers have to be very cost conscious," Moe said. "Governments are not competitive and they don't go out of business."
Castelli sees little difference between the $15-an-hour factory workers he represented and BART workers who make an average $78,000 a year and don't contribute to their pensions. And increasingly he sees little difference between the mill operators who would simply fire his organizing committee and BART leaders, whom he said caught the union off guard with a sophisticated public relations campaign.
Much like during the BART strike 16 years ago, polls show little public sympathy for striking workers.
Castelli said he had no regrets about the strike and won't rule out shutting down BART again if progress isn't made at the bargaining table.
"I guess people can question tactics, but this thing hasn't played itself out," he said. "We're going to keep standing up, and we're not backing down."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
Family: Married father of two
Job: Executive director of SEIU Local 1021, a 52,000-member unit spanning from Fremont to the Oregon border and one of two unions that orchestrated the recent BART strike
Quote: "What happened to our country that workers who want to retire, who don't want to pay tons of money on health care and who want to have a decent living, somehow have become vilified?"