Not so long ago, when Bay Area commuters were still livid over the second BART strike in three months, a ban on such work stoppages was not only a swell conversation starter but a political cause that seemed to be gathering steam.

Two weeks ago, that steam turned to frost when Senate Bill 423, calling for a ban on California transit worker strikes, died in committee. The bill, authored by state Sen. Bob Huff, R-Brea, failed on a party-line vote.

Maybe it failed because it was too broad. Maybe it was too bold. Maybe it failed because a minority party member sponsored it. Who knows? But this will not be the end of the story, if either BART board President Joel Keller or state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, gets his way.

Striking BART workers walk the picket line at the Lake Merritt station in Oakland on Oct. 21, 2013.
Striking BART workers walk the picket line at the Lake Merritt station in Oakland on Oct. 21, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff file)

DeSaulnier, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he has several ideas to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of future strikes, not all of which he cares to divulge. ("I haven't given up," he said, "but I don't want to introduce legislation that's going to die in committee.")

For starters, he hopes to enlist the state auditor to verify all BART financial figures six months before any future bargaining sessions. He said both sides seem receptive to the idea.

"We hear all the time that the rank-and-file never believes the numbers the administration comes up with," he said, "and after they get riled up, they spend all their time arguing over that. I think that contributes a lot to the problem."


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Keller hopes to grease the skids for legislative change. He will try to persuade board colleagues to put an advisory ballot measure before voters asking for their support of a proposal that would flatly prohibit BART worker strikes while the collective bargaining process plays out.

"What I'm proposing is that when there's a dispute, we change the way we resolve it," he said. "My proposal is a panel of five people -- two proposed by labor, two by management and the fifth a retired judge selected by those four participants. If they're unable to agree on who that is, the presiding judge in the county with largest population we serve would designate a retired judge to be the tiebreaker."

BART trains would keep running while this august body played contract give-and-take. If labor and management couldn't agree, contract terms would be determined by binding arbitration. That's where the judge comes in.

Keller advocates a winner-take-all format. There's no compromise -- either labor's or management's offer is chosen. ("You can't cut the baby in half," he said.) This format, which is how baseball owners and players resolve contract disagreements, encourages both sides to move to the center with their demands.

Keller's measure, which would go before voters only in the counties BART serves -- Alameda, San Francisco and Contra Costa -- would have no binding power, but if it receives the strong public support he envisions, it could serve as a powerful motivator for Sacramento legislators to get off their political backsides and act.

"There's no guarantee that would happen," Keller said, "but in order for dispute resolution at BART to change, I believe it has to be done on a bipartisan basis. And the only way we can get a bipartisan bill brought forward is if there are enough people supporting it."

The wheels of change turn slowly. But they are turning.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.