Train Strike!

View_of_Market_Street_during_the_streetcar_strike_of_1907_AAD_4930.jpgView of Market Street during 1907 streetcar strike (from San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

On Sunday BART workers might strike, throwing Bay Area transportation into chaos. It's a tiny echo of the kind of warfare that used to erupt regularly a century ago on the streetcar lines of San Francisco. 1,500 streetcar men voted to strike for an 8-hour day, leading to "Bloody Tuesday," May 7, 1907, when gunfights exploded between armed guards and men shooting from nearby vacant lots, while strikebreakers housed in United Railroads carbarns opened fire on protesting crowds, killing two and injuring 20. By the time the strike was lost in March 1908, six had been killed in the violence, 250 more hurt, and over two dozen had died in accidents on the system while it was run by scab labor.

A decade later, almost exactly 92 years ago, streetcar workers struck again:

On August 11, 1917, at 9:45 p.m., one hundred "platform men" employed by the privately owned United Railroads (URR) streetcar service in San Francisco, abandoned their streetcars near the corner of Market, Valencia and Haight Streets, rapidly tying up many of the main lines in and out of the city center. Weeks of secret agitation had set the stage for a strong, well-organized walkout.

The SF Examiner (8/12/1917) details the strike's beginning:

"The strike's leaders... arranged with the crews of three cars to block Market Street and connecting lines at a certain hour. The crews were to run slowly so that when they stopped their cars a big blockade would result. The time was set at 9:50 o'clock. Five minutes before this Car 1534 of the Valencia street line stopped at the Market street junction. A Gough, Cortland car and a Market Haight car stopped at the same time. The cars following closely on each of these lines piled up quickly. The blockade was effective. The crews stood by their cars for a few minutes. Some removed their badges and mingled with the big crowd that collected. They all announced that they were on strike, that they were not satisfied with wages or hours or conditions.

Company officials and police arrived a few minutes later. Thirty or forty of the strikers left for the Labor Temple. They had been told to congregate there. On the way they tried to get the crews of several Sixteenth street and Mission street cars to desert. They were successful with the crew of one Sixteenth street car. Demonstrations took place in the street at this point. Poles were torn from the trolleys. A brick was hurled through a car window... It was an hour before the blockade was cleared... due in great measure to the fact that the striking motormen threw their controller bars away [and] the new crews had to hunt for the bars in the streets."

The strike spread, as URR workers quickly joined the strike and within just a few days over 1,000 were on strike demanding union recognition, $3.50 a day, and an 8 hour workday. Daily parades of strikers surged through the streets, all the way to the ferries and back up Market and Mission streets, exhorting those still working to walk off and join the strike. Mass meetings were held at the Redstone Building (at 16th and Capp), where delegations were selected to visit major industrial sites around town, such as the Union Iron Works, to rally workers to abandon the URR streetcars, while others headed for outlying carbarns to enlist more workers to strike.

Mobs repeatedly attacked scab streetcars throughout the city. On August 13 police dispersed crowds at Bryant and 24th streets in the Mission and at 8th and Market. By the 14th, the strike had spread so thoroughly that the URR was forced to shut most of its lines.

By 1934, during the famous San Francisco General Strike, streetcar workers had become civil service employees. When their union head, Edward Vandeleur, was made president of the General Strike Committee, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins telegrammed him that there was nothing to worry about because the strike was led by conservative union leaders. True enough, at least in part. Vandeleur pressed the Strike Committee to exempt his streetcar men from participating in the effort, so as not to jeopardize their civil service status. After WWII, when the MUNI absorbed the remaining lines of the privately owned United Railroads (just when the war-time boom of ridership was about to drop off due to suburbanization and the postwar push for private cars), the workers were integrated into a cozy relationship with the transit management, leading to the peaceful and cooperative labor relations that have mostly prevailed since then. Efforts to undo the cushy work rules have been central to the "reforms" of the past two decades, as efforts have been made to impose market-like discipline on MUNI workers.

When BART started running in 1972, it was meant to function not as an urban transit system as much as a regional commuter train system, which is why it's held on to its cushioned upholstery and been so anti-bicycle and pro-parking. The workers were unionized from the get-go, and a mutual back-scratching relationship has mostly prevailed. Now we face a second strike in the past 12 years.

Already crowded highways will be jammed with commuters who have few alternatives to the BART system. We can predict that there will be a lot of anger directed at the workers, by inconvenienced commuters of course, but the corporate local media is sure to slant their coverage to portray BART workers as a greedy, already well-paid bunch of selfish workers. We can predict this because we already lived this particular drama in 1997, when BART workers struck to protect their wages and conditions.

The temptation is to delve into the details of contract negotiations and see which side is being "unfair" or demanding "too much." But it really doesn't matter who is taking which position. The bigger drama is that BART is a badly designed heavy rail system that we're stuck with, and the cost of maintaining it is borne by its users, not the management nor the workers. The employees of BART have the capacity to pursue an independent path, one that builds solidarity with the riders instead of pitting workers against riders.

But within the terms of existing trade unionism, a highy bureaucratic collective bargaining context, and the endless effort to maintain "middle class" living standards, it would take a mighty effort to rethink strategy and tactics. It's especially farfetched in the absence of a wider culture of solidarity and resistance, wherein workers in offices, schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels, and the remaining factories around the Bay find common ground in rethinking the purpose of our overworked lives, and use the collective power of our labor to reinvent how ALL OF US meet ALL our needs, together.

I wrote about the 1997 BART strike in its time, arguing that:

If the BART workers were interested in gaining some real class-wide solidarity, their cause would have been far better served, and the strike would have been over in an hour or two, if they had merely continued to run the trains BUT REFUSED TO COLLECT FARES! Of course, BART's hated and idiotic fare collection system, which must waste thousands of human hours per year as we all struggle to feed paper money into its recalcitrant jaws, is really designed to prevent this kind of working class solidarity. With one station attendant at each gate area at most, a fare strike would be easily stopped by police intervention, unlike the MUNI, which is still designed to give the driver discretionary power over fare collection. Automated fare systems clearly have nothing to do with convenience or public service, and everything to do with pre-empting working class solidarity over the fare box and other types of popular resistance to unjustified and unnecessary fares.

BART workers could have promoted a class solidarity by contesting the direction of BART, resisting the absurdly wasteful expansion to the SF Airport, and insisting on integration with Caltrain, MUNI and other transit systems. But the unions are as afraid of that kind of larger political agenda, and in the case of BART unions in particular, the gravy train is pretty tasty, so why rock the boat? As BART commandeers more and more available transit funding in the Bay Area, there is more for BART workers, too, which is good for the bottom line of the unions that represent them, and their well-paid executives.

I hope the BART strike ends quickly, or somehow changes its spots and becomes a more generalized effort to challenge the way we live. Absent the latter rather unlikely scenario, I hope the workers will stave off the worst take-aways, and maintain their wages and conditions. In a culture hostile to the working class while glorifying work, it's only fitting that the people who actually have leverage succeed, even in the limited terms of a labor aristocracy, a trade union organized for its members betterment, not the broader class of which it's a part. Meanwhile, the rest of us, transit geeks, cyclists, and others, can take this opportunity to reflect on what a truly self-managed, reorganized transit universe might look like.