San Francisco transit riders were caught by surprise last week when Muni operators staged a three-day sickout. But the wildcat action was foreshadowed in the campaign four years ago against a voter-approved initiative that required collective bargaining but stripped some of the union's power to negotiate.
“At this point, the wall is so high in negotiations that we cannot get over it because it’s an unfair process,” said Eric Williams, president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents 2,200 operators.
But late last week, in a hopeful sign for the union, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency agreed to meet with a mediator instead of an arbitrator. Union leaders had accused the agency of forcing talks into arbitration, where the odds are stacked against them.
Under Prop. G, approved by nearly 65 percent of San Francisco voters in 2010, arbitration is triggered when negotiations reach an impasse. In arbitration, the measure puts the burden on operators to prove their labor proposals prioritize Muni service and serve the public interest. Otherwise, the rules favor the SFMTA’s proposals.
“That is not negotiating. That’s dictating the system,” Williams said. “What kind of bargaining is this?”
Prop. G, sold as a way to “Fix Muni Now,” was pushed primarily by former Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and Supervisor Scott Wiener and endorsed by a number of groups, including the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). They cautioned the measure alone wouldn’t fix Muni, but get rid of inefficient work rules and rein in labor costs that the SFMTA said forced a service cut of 10 percent.
At the time, union leaders said operators were being blamed for everything wrong with the city’s beleaguered transit system — portrayed as lazy public employees with runaway overtime and high salaries. They had refused givebacks at a time when other city employees were making sacrifices.
But that was because the base pay of operators was set under a 47-year-old wage formula that required operators’ salaries to be the second-highest in the nation. Proposition G did away with that formula and handed more power to the SFMTA to bargain and run operations.
Whether Prop. G has done what it was intended to do is up for debate. Some elected officials who opposed the measure, but supported other reforms, say it’s not working.
“This anti-worker language made Prop. G a more divisive measure and created a lot of the distrust we’re now seeing from the Transport Workers Union,” said Supervisor John Avalos during a debate last Tuesday on a resolution calling on Muni operators to go back to work. “Prop. G was sold to the voters as 'fix Muni now,' but we all know it didn’t fix Muni.”
Wiener, who ran his campaign for supervisor in the same office as Prop. G, has made Muni reform one of his top priorities.
“We’ve seen steady progress,” Wiener said, arguing Prop. G has done away with work rules that triggered what he described as “very excessive overtime.”
The SFMTA has trimmed overtime, according to the city controller, but Williams said operators have no choice but to work long hours.
“Prop. G was based on getting bodies in here to get the buses out, to get the equipment out. They still have not achieved that,” Williams said.
Williams said an operator shortage has left the SFMTA without 200 full-time and 251 part-time operators. Many, he said, work 12-hour days. Overtime is paid as time-and-a-half.
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose admits “previous budgetary decisions” meant the agency “didn’t have the appropriate resources for training” new operators. But this year 15 additional trainers were hired and “a training surge” has begun. The first group of trainees, about 25 full-time operators, graduated Thursday.
Still, Williams contends the training is antiquated, and it will take years to train all the operators needed.
“All these positions that are open equate to runs that are not going out,” Williams said. “The full-time operators that are on the platform right now are making up the difference.”
Prop. G, for the first time, allowed the SFMTA to hire part-time operators. But Williams said the agency has had trouble attracting new part-timers because of the pay and the high cost of living in the Bay Area.
“How do you bring in a part-timer, and you’re asking him to pay 10 percent into his pension? And making $78 a day, plus gas and everything else. You’re trying to bring in new hires and the job is not worth it,” Williams said.
The Frontline Ambassadors
The call for applications on the SFMTA’s website hails Muni operators as the frontline ambassadors to the city. It’s hard to argue that being a Muni operator isn’t a tough job.
Safety concerns, lack of restroom breaks, mechanical breakdowns and traffic congestion add up to a lot of stress for drivers, Williams said, not to mention the pressure of being on time.
“The worry that if I'm not on time I'm going to hear from the passengers, and I'm going to hear from my supervisor on where I'm at because I'm stuck in traffic because the agency and the city won't give us bus lanes,” said Williams, a former cable car operator who has worked a variety of jobs at the SFMTA.
"We love our jobs,” he went on. “Most of us, even though we don't live in the city, we were raised in the city and we still have family in the city. We like what we do.”
But “it's unbelievable that we're here in San Francisco, the freest city in the nation, and we're being attacked like we are as workers, minority workers. That is unfair."
A proposed two-year contract, initially agreed to by both sides through a mediator, was rejected by a vote of 1,148 to 47 three days before the sickout. It includes a salary hike and pension swap union leaders say would actually amount to a $1.10 an hour wage cut.
An SFMTA spokesman argued it’s an equal swap: a 5.05 percent offset for a 7.5 pension contribution (which pretaxed would amount to 5.05 percent), combined with a 3 percent raise this year, and another raise based on the consumer price index in 2015 between 2.25 and 3.25 percent.
Muni drivers make anywhere from $18 to $29 an hour, according to the SFMTA. The agency says the new contract, which would take effect July 1, would bump some pay to $32 an hour, and that Muni operators would go from being the seventh-highest-paid transit operators in the country to the second highest.
But Williams said the union’s accountant crunched the numbers and the figures don't add up to an even swap.
A date for new talks has not been set, but the SFMTA Board must approve a new contract by this Sunday, June 15. It has scheduled a special meeting Friday. If a contract is not approved by the deadline, an SFMTA spokesman said the current contract would be extended by two years, an unpleasant prospect for the union.
The current contract, which froze wages, was imposed by an arbitrator in 2011 after it was overwhelmingly rejected by operators, who took a strike vote, even though the city charter forbids a walkout.
Williams said operators are just asking to be treated like other city employees, who get an equal swap for their pensions. He said he understands rider anger over the sickout last week, but wants a fair deal.
"We feel for our riders. We feel for the public, we do, and we're not asking for sympathy," Williams said. “We just want to be treated fairly as human beings and hard-working individuals.”