Muni operators stage sickout

June 9, 2014

Michael Barron and R. Edvin Sunde explain the background to this month's sickout by transit workers in San Francisco--and what's at stake in the struggle ahead.

SAN FRANCISCO'S municipal transit system (known as Muni), which serves about 700,000 passengers a day, was crippled by a mass sickout by operators June 2 through June 4. With only one-third of Muni buses and light-rail trains operating at the peak of the rank-and-file-organized action, the city's public transit system all but ground to a halt.

Aside from their routine spotlight on the inconvenience to commuters, most of the media coverage of the sickout focused on a narrow dispute over pension contributions.

In reality, the struggle has deeper roots. It began with a heavy-handed attack on the Muni operators union, Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 250-A, and its collective bargaining rights in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-09. In the face of repressive laws that bar them from striking, the Muni operators--80 percent of whom are people of color--were forced to stage a "sickout" to flex their power.

IN 2010, supposedly in response to reduced revenue as a result of the crisis, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority (SFMTA), the city agency that oversees Muni, cut transit service by 10 percent. Revenue did decline, but a substantial amount of the loss was due to mismanagement--such as the agency issuing "work orders" to other departments that inevitably went over budget.

Only a third of Muni buses and light-rail trains were running at the height of the sickout
Only a third of Muni buses and light-rail trains were running at the height of the sickout

The city government, rather than advocating increased taxes on the city's wealthy to increase revenues, sided with business interests in developing an anti-labor initiative: Proposition G.

The measure puts the onus on the TWU for its contract demands to be for "the public interest in efficient and reliable transit," while revoking guaranteed driver pay parity with other expensive urban regions. The well-funded referendum passed overwhelmingly in November 2010, after a propaganda campaign scapegoating Muni operators for budget shortfalls.

Prop G tied the hands of the union at the bargaining table. Months afterward, SFMTA management--knowing it could win anything in arbitration now--attacked numerous provisions of the TWU contract that had ensured members' rights to due process, independent third-party investigations into safety grievances, full-time employment for all employees, and pay raises.

Management's arrogance caused a reaction--Local 250-A members rejected the new contract by a 2-to-1 margin, nearly leading to a wildcat strike in June 2011. But when the arbitrator, as expected, approved all new pro-management concessions in accordance with the provisions of Proposition G, the union members' near-revolt dissipated.

The union sued, claiming that the new laws stripped workers' rights to bargain for safe working conditions, as well as adequate pay and benefits. A California Public Employment Relations Board judge ruled in favor of the TWU in April 2013. But the city has continued to appeal the ruling, allowing the regressive law to continue to undermine this round of collective bargaining.

Three years after the big defeat, the SFMTA is back for more concessions, including a two-tier wage system and a meager raise that would reduce hourly pay by $1.10 after new pension obligations are added in--meanwhile, other city unions are getting substantially larger pay raises.

Given the fast rate that the cost of living is going up in San Francisco, and that workers have had to endure a considerably weakened contract for the last three years, it's no surprise that members voted down management's new offer by an almost unanimous margin on May 30. The sickout the following week was much anticipated.

The anger among Muni operators is plain. As one said in an interview:

I've had to move to Oakland, even though I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Excelsior [District]. This is my city, but I don't see how working people can stay in this city unless the new folks to the city see how folks are struggling. I'm in Oakland for now, but I want to be able to return to where I'm from. It's not right what's happening to San Francisco, and we shouldn't be ashamed of trying to fight to be in our city."

Adding insult to injury, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed an unfair labor practice complaint to the same state board that has ruled the city's new laws relating to Muni operators are illegal. Herrera's complaint charged that the "sickout" violated "good-faith" bargaining.

But the sickout was organized by rank-and-file members, outside any formal direction by the elected union leadership.

The strength and solidarity of the action has put city officials in a tough position. Should they attempt to discipline the two-thirds of workers who participated in the sickout, they would clearly be guilty of violating their supposed top priority of protecting "the public interest in efficient and reliable transit."

THERE IS another important element to this struggle--the prolonged assault on Muni workers is one face of an assault that is disproportionately focused on people of color and the poor in San Francisco.

The Muni operators' union is known across the city for being predominantly African American and other people of color--famously, the late poet Maya Angelou was one of the first African American female streetcar operator in the city.

According to the Brookings Institute, San Francisco gained the notoriety of being the second-most unequal city in the U.S., after Atlanta. It is a city where African Americans have been systematically displaced for decades, comprising just 6 percent of the population today--and they are disproportionately targeted in the war on drugs, accounting for almost three-quarters of those sent to prison for drug offenses.

Thus, Local 250-A President Eric Williams pointed out how racial justice is a crucial part of the Muni workers' struggle, in an interview San Francisco Bay Guardian:

Our members feel that it's an attack on minorities...We are majority minority. You can ask just about any operator out there--Asian, Hispanic, African American--how they feel...what they think the public's issue is with us because we're making $60,000 a year.

The direct action by Muni operators is a courageous act of resistance against the onslaught on public-sector unions and attacks on people of color in San Francisco. It challenges an unfair system of labor laws that channel working people's fightback into arenas that always favor the rich and powerful.

While the final results of the sickout aren't yet known, history tells us that without a real threat of work stopping, workers have a difficult time making progress. If public-sector workers are going to successfully resist ruling class attacks, they will need to take direct action on the job.

The Muni drivers' example is a powerful one--it shows that working people make our cities run, and the key to our power lies in our leverage at the workplace.

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