Trolley conductor Sam Eversley gazes up Powell Street. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Cable car conductor Sam Eversley gazes up Powell Street. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

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?”

Passengers board the #38 bus on Geary Street, near Union Square. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Passengers board a 38-Geary bus near Union Square. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Proposition G

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.

Alex Duran has worked as a Muni driver for the past 15 years, and he's displeased with the proposed contract. "We haven't gotten a raise for five years, but they've been raising our premium," he said. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Alex Duran has worked as a Muni driver for 15 years, and he’s displeased with the proposed contract. “We haven’t gotten a raise for five years, but they’ve been raising our premium,” he said. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Operator Shortage 

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.

Cable car conductor Francis Givens, 51, of Brentwood, works on the Powell Street line. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Cable car conductor Francis Givens, 51, of Brentwood, works on the Powell Street line. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

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.”

The Contract 

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.”

Odds Stacked Against S.F. Transit Operators in Talks, Union Leaders Say 10 June,2014Bryan Goebel

  • sebra leaves

    As we know the SFMTA has prioritized designing the streets for 2030, working with lobbies on State laws to punish drivers, taking care of contractors, and consultants, and placating the Bike Coalition to fix the Muni. Prop E gave the SFMTA way to much leeway and stripped most authority from our elected officials when it comes to questioning SFMTA motives and priorities. Voters need a chance to weigh in. If you agree it is time for a change, please help us get the Restore Transportation Balance initiative on the November ballot. Details here:

    • jdees

      Really? A citizens motorist advisor? SFMTA definitely needs to be shaken up, and a comprehensive plan for all traffic, with an emphasis on mass transit and cycling/walking, needs to be revised/implemented. This initiative you’re promoting is all about encouraging private auto use, which is the last thing San Francisco needs.

      • sfparkripoff

        Sounds like you did not read the initiative:

        which states that “any proposed re-engineering of traffic flows in the City should aim to achieve safer, smoother-flowing streets.”

        how is that encouraging private auto use?

        • Jo Baker

          Neighborhood parking garages? Seriously stupid, outdated notion. We don’t need MORE cars in SF. We need fewer.

  • TruthinSF

    No public employee should have the right to unionize and strike. It’s time to take all union rights away from public employees.

  • jdees

    Thank you for this article. I’m a MUNI driver. I’m a nice guy. I do my best to smile and say hi to my passengers, and get them where they need to go. SFMTA has thrown us under the bus (vocational joke there) for a long time now. They give us schedules that are impossible to meet. My entire day is madness…drivers do insane and dangerous things to avoid being behind a bus…cyclists turn right on red without stopping right in front of the bus, junior high kids going home from school turn the back of my bus into a lord of the flies reenactment, trying to wake a drugged out guy up at the end of the line without getting hit, breaking up fights, being threatened in the hood for refusing to stop at places that are not designated stops, manuevering through double parked cars and trucks and construction… All this, plus the city does nothing to help us. It took years to get a couple bus only lanes marked. Runs constantly not out because they haven’t hired enough part time operators, so I am the only bus on a heavy line during rush hour for 40 minutes..You really have no idea what this job entails until you do it. I rode MUNI for a decade prior and didn’t realize. Most of the younger operators I know are applying elsewhere or exploring their options, the pay, while decent on paper, is just not worth it.

    None of the drivers I know are just lazy greedy people. We work, in poor conditions, very very hard. We haven’t had an increase in years. Now, between the retirement and health care increases, the pay bump will result in a smaller paycheck. My rent has gone up every year, so has cost of living in the bay area. I’ve got no problem paying into my pension, but I think it’s lame the city expects us to take a pay cut. I also think the arbitration process is a joke. The provisions imposed are effectively union busting.

  • sebra leaves

    The majority of the vehicles on the road are cars and the owners of said cars pay for more of Muni’s expenses than Muni riders do. Muni drivers and riders should be relieved to see that someone is taking on the SFMTA and help us in our efforts to change their focus to running Muni instead of re-designing streets for 2030. We are not blaming the drivers for Muni’s abysmal records of incompetence. We are blaming management. Drivers should accept our help.

  • disqus_EeYK71lzzB

    N E W S R E L E A S E From TWU Local 250-A

    For Immediate Release, June 13, 2014
    Contact: Jamie Horwitz
    ​ 202/549-4921
    ​ ​​

    Transit Union Calls for Immediate Return to Bargaining with SFMTA; Proposes Terms for Contract Settlement

    Union President Suggests that SFMTA’s Director of Transportation’s
    Absence From the Bargaining Table has Led to Misinformation

    SAN FRANCISCO – TWU Local 250-A, the union representing San Francisco MUNI operators, has called for an immediate return to bargaining with the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

    “We again urge SFMTA to return to the bargaining table,” TWU Local 250-A President Eric Williams wrote today, in a letter to Ed Reiskin, Director of Transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

    Noting that Reiskin has not been attended any of the bargaining sessions between union members and SFMTA management, Williams shared with Reiskin a “practical proposal to immediately resolve” the current labor dispute.

    Union negotiators have already presented this “cost-neutral” proposal to management. It calls for union members to make contributions towards their own retirement accounts, in exchange for an equivalent pay raise.

    Union members voted down a proposal on May 30, which would have resulted in a net pay cut. Management had claimed that a limited pay hike would cover increased retirement contributions, but an independent analysis by a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) retained by Local 250-A demonstrated that this was not the case.

    “We are carrying out responsibility to accurately cost out the proposals presented to us by management, so our members can see the impact on their working lives and on their paychecks,” said Williams. “Our members voted down a pay cut, so that’s off the table. We need to get back to the bargaining table so we can resolve all the outstanding issues and focus on providing the best possible transit service to our customers.”

    The full text of TWU 250-A President Eric Williams’ letter to Reiskin can be found here:

    Dear Mr. Reiskin:

    ​Your letter of June 12th continues to misstate the facts surrounding the present labor dispute involving the Operators.

    ​You have not attended a single bargaining session so perhaps you have not been fully informed of what transpired. During mediation we were led to believe that this so-called retirement “swap” was a “cost neutral” proposal, in other words the offset offered of 5.05% in additional wage adjustment would fully fund the employee pick up of the 7.5% currently paid by the Agency because of its inclusion in premium payments, overtime pay and the other roll-ups. It was only after we agreed to present that proposal to our members that we learned from a CPA the Union hired that this representation was not correct. In fact, the Agency representatives have now acknowledged that to fully offset the additional pension contribution the Operators base hourly wage increase of 3% would have to be applied, not just the 5.05% “swap”. In fact to fully offset the additional retirement contribution you are expecting the Operators to pick up would take approximately a 9.5% adjustment, not the 5.05% being offered.

    ​In short, the SFMTA’s proposal would result in a net wage cut for the majority of Operators and the basic wage increase of 3% offered to all City employees would not result in any real wage increase to our members. To now suggest that the Union has misrepresented these facts to our membership is insulting and untrue. Fortunately, we were able to expose the “smoke and mirrors” proposal the Agency was making before our members were negatively harmed by it.

    ​As to your contention that the Union has refused to continue with the impasse resolution proceedings, that is also inaccurate. One of the fundamental prerequisites for going to arbitration under the Charter is that the parties have engaged in good faith bargaining. Once the misrepresentation as to the impact of the retirement “swap” came to light it was apparent to me that further bargaining was needed to resolve that issue and get more information. We immediately requested the resumption of bargaining and the Agency refused. Since then unfair labor practice charges have been filed by both sides with PERB. The Union has made it clear that we will proceed to arbitration once further direct negotiations have been conducted and those pending charges have been resolved. On Wednesday PERB rejected the Agency’s request for injunctive relief, finding that there was no merit to it.

    ​More than a week ago TWU indicated that it would be prepared to proceed to arbitration on June 24th, the next available date offered by the Arbitrator, if the PERB charges are resolved by then. That remains our position. In the meantime we again urge SFMTA to return to the bargaining table. As recently as Wednesday evening we presented SFMTA with a practical proposal to immediately resolve this dispute. A copy of that proposal is attached and I would hope that you will be presenting that to the Board as well. One of the options offered in that proposal is that we will pick up 3.5% of the 7.5% retirement contribution if it is fully offset with a wage adjustment that is truly “cost neutral”. The Agency rejected that proposal outright without making any counter offer.

    ​You indicate that the Board will be asked to approve the mediator’s proposed agreement. We are informed that the Board does not have the legal authority to unilaterally impose such terms, and indeed under the Charter does not have authority to adopt a new MOU without either the agreement of the Union or a decision of the Arbitrator. However, if you do intend to proceed in that manner then I expect you will present the Union’s proposal to the Board as well. I assume the version of the SFMTA proposal on the retirement swap you will be presenting to the Board is the most recent one where the Agency proposed delaying the implementation until the end of the two year term of the MOU.

    ​As to your threat to discontinue the contract arbitration procedure and collection of union dues, that would be highly provocative. You should also be aware that if the SFMTA does not continue the status quo in all respects then the contractual prohibition on strikes and picketing would also no longer be enforceable.

    ​If indeed you and the Agency do value the Operators service to this City, then you should immediately accept one of the two very reasonable options the Union has submitted for immediate resolution of this dispute.



Bryan Goebel

Bryan Goebel is a reporter focused on transportation and housing issues. He was previously the editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and an anchor/editor at KCBS Radio. He's a lifelong Californian and has also worked at radio stations in Barstow, Redding and Sacramento.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor