Supes Committee to Vote Tomorrow on Muni Operator Wage Proposal

27696461_5a9e33a7a4.jpgFlickr photo: Thomas Hawk.

A Board of Supervisors committee is set to vote on a proposed ballot initiative that would end a decades-old policy of guaranteeing Muni operators the second-highest transit operator wages in the country. The Rules Committee will take up the proposal at its 10 a.m. meeting tomorrow, after a week in which the proposal’s sponsor, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and Muni labor leaders met to hash out what such a ballot measure would look like.

The initiative comes amidst a worsening budget crisis, but the merits of such a measure may lie as much in its broader bargaining value as in its cost-savings potential. "The city really has no position, because if the salary is already set, what ability do we have to negotiate any changes to, say, work rules that we believe are outdated, work rules that we’d like to improve," asked Elsbernd at last week’s Rules Committee meeting. "There is no incentive on the other side to give anything, because they already know what they’re going to get as a salary."

Last month, SPUR head Gabriel Metcalf told the Chronicle he backs Elsbernd’s proposal for just that reason. "It sets up the ability for management to bargain for work-rule changes in exchange for pay and benefits," Metcalf said.

With operator salaries comprising about $212 million of the MTA’s $765 million budget, and with operators making up over 2,000 of the MTA’s 4,600 employees (before a recent round of layoffs,) Elsbernd has argued that the MTA effectively has no leeway over a huge chunk of its budget. "We are shackled to the charter, shackled to whatever number comes out, and here we are listening to discussions of Muni fare increases, parking meter increases and of course, massive service reductions," he said.

Muni operators haven’t been exempt from the budget pain: 170 operator positions may be on the chopping block as part of a huge set of service cuts the MTA Board is currently mulling over, part of a plan to cut Muni’s annual service hours by a whopping ten percent.

A Forty-Two Year Precedent

propg.jpgClick to view PDF. Proposition G, a 1967 ballot measure, was passed in the wake of a strike to improve labor relations and raise employee moral.

The proposal’s supporters argue that giving management greater leverage to negotiate work rules could ultimately lead to a reduction in absenteeism and resulting missed runs. Interestingly, the existing charter provision is a modified version of a charter amendment initiative passed in 1967, which was also designed in part to reduce absenteeism. That amendment, Proposition G (PDF), actually set a salary cap at the average of the two highest transit agency wages nationally, but acted as a de facto salary schedule in most years.

Evidence that the Municipal Railway has been facing some of the same problems for a very long time, the official argument in support of Proposition G cited the need to reduce missed runs. "In the year ending May 1, 1967, there was an average of 86 vacancies on the Municipal Railway. These vacant jobs had to be covered by other operators working overtime," it reads. "This cost the City thousands of dollars in overtime pay, and, in many cases, cut the service offered to the public when runs could not he manned. With fair terms of employment more operators will be recruited and fewer will leave."

The provision in Prop. G was actually strengthened and its de facto salary minimum codified in 2007 by Proposition A (PDF), which, among other changes, amended the charter to officially set operator salaries at the average of the nation’s two highest-paying transit agencies (Elsbernd supported the proposal.)

The Price of Labor Peace

Employee moral – not to mention the aversion of strikes – remains a key factor in why the current wage system shouldn’t change, said Irwin Lum, president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. "San Francisco voters are going to want all the relevant facts before allowing ambitious politicians to trash a city charter provision responsible for 42 years of labor peace," Lum wrote in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 6.

Not coincidentally, 1967 was also the year of the last operator strike. The official argument for Proposition G cites the relatively lower pay and benefit standards for Muni operators compared to other city employees at the time. "Bus and trolley operators and other platform personnel of the Municipal Railway have fallen behind most other City Employees in their fringe benefits, such as shift differentials, paid holidays and health and welfare," it reads. "They have also fallen behind in fringe benefits as compared to operators in other large cities with whom their basic wage rate is compared. The result is that the bus and trolley operators jobs, recognized as hard and demanding, are not getting their fair terms of employment."

Today, operators’ jobs remain demanding as ever, though they no longer lag behind peer agencies in pay. Elsbernd said he’s confident the collective bargaining process has come along far enough in California that labor and the MTA’s management would no longer have irresolvable differences that would lead to a strike.

"It works for everyone else," he said. "I have complete faith that it
will work for them."

The Hardest Transit Operator Job in the Country?

But Lum criticized Elsbernd’s proposal again today, calling their Monday meeting unproductive, and said that Muni operators
manifestly have a harder job than operators at most agencies, in
addition to living in the high-cost Bay Area. "We have one of the
hardest jobs," said Lum. "You can’t compare our job to VTA," another of
the top-paying agencies, which Lum said operates in far less congested
conditions, carrying fewer riders per vehicle.

Lum said drivers are being unfairly picked on. "They’re trying to
portray us as being unreasonable and self-serving and selfish, which is
anything but the case," said Lum. He places the blame for the agency’s
current financial woes on the Governor’s repeated raiding of transit assistance
funds
, which has cost the MTA $152 million over the past three years.

Supervisor David Campos, the Rules Committee’s chair, supported continued discussion of the measure, as did Supervisors Chris Daly and Eric Mar. Daly said he’d be open to including most of the provisions in a bigger package of charter amendments.

As the MTA stares down a mid-year deficit that of $16.9 million and a $70 million projected deficit for the next budget cycle, Elsbernd is not alone in proposing amendments to how the agency operates. Campos is working on a proposed ballot initiative to give the Board of Supervisors control over three MTA Board seats (moving away from the increased independence of the MTA created by Proposition A in 2007,) and has formally requested an audit of some portions of the MTA’s operations.

The proposed ballot initiative is Item 2 at tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors Rules Committee meeting, which will be held at 10 a.m. at San Francisco City Hall, Committee Room 263.

  • “San Francisco voters are going to want all the relevant facts before allowing ambitious politicians to trash a city charter provision responsible for 42 years of labor peace,”

    Sounds like we’re being held hostage.

    It comes down to weighing what we want the least:

    Labor unrest for 2k operators vs. 700k+ riders per day suffering fare hikes, service cuts, and poor reliability.

  • Sean Elsbernd could give two sh*ts about Muni. He supported the rules as is, and now is trying to sound like the owner/rider’s friend with this. Why won’t he touch executive pay, or SEIU, or any other employee class?

    I’m no friend of Irwin Lum’s bullcrap, but Sean is not being honest. He doesn’t give a damn about Muni and doesn’t ride it on a regular basis. This is showboaty stuff that only a Newsom-ite would love.

    Put real reform and real funding on the ballot, and not some half-assed thing, and FUND IT with real revenue (not fines and cuts) and then we can talk.

    Until then, this is just a lot of horsetrading.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Seems like a good idea. Muni has been run as an employee benefit society which incidentally operates some buses the entire time I’ve lived here. And has anyone ever stopped to ask what happens if more than one city guarantees their employees the average of the top 2 wage scales nationwide? What if more than one city assures their operators of having the top salary?

  • Andy Chow

    I think Lum has a point. Driving on the VTA’s route 22 cannot compared to driving on the 8X, 14, or the 38.

    Bottom line, I think the issue is overcrowding. Muni’s service is overcrowded on many corridors, and that any meaningful service cuts would impact those core routes, which causes even greater overcrowding. Overcrowding vehicles are generally slower just because they have to spent more times at each stop to board and deboard. The even worse part is that overcrowded buses mean lost fare revenue as more riders board through the back door.

    I would think that having more jitney service could potentially address overcrowding on some corridors. Perhaps commuters are willing to pay a bit more (not as much as the CultureBus) for a ride on a bus that’s not run by Muni. Yes, it will create competition to Muni’s unions, but I think it is a better alternative than trying to mess with their wages. If you eliminate their fixed wages, they could easily become #1 highest paid operators.

  • An important question was missed here: What do some typical operator salaries benefits actually look like? Before and after overtime.

  • I think if we apply the same rules to the management and to non-drivers (they also get paid a lot too) then you’d have a proposal that would take care of things better.

    I realize that drivers are easy to see, but how much are we paying all these 100,000+ managers who then tell us we need to hire “consultants” (to the tune of millions of dollars?) That’s easily just as wasteful.

    And, what about this whole pay me not to work thing? I don’t see anything in the proposal that addresses the rampant unannounced absenteeism that costs the city a fortune in overtime and service disruptions.

    Oh wait, that would take more time and be harder to explain in a soundbite. Right.

  • Jared

    Stuart asks a real question: how much do these working class people make and also what does that mean in terms of living costs in SF? The fact they’re the 2nd highest paid in the country is irrelevant to this debate. In and of itself that means nothing – for example, let’s flip the perspective – perhaps every other city’s transport workers are underpaid, especially in terms of a living wage. Throwing out “2nd highest paid” w/out contextualizing is a dishonest presentation tactic.

    As for all this talk of absenteeism – again – how much does that really cost all you poor bike riders quantatively versus say a million other things that taxpayers pay for? Sounds a lot like class warfare to me. I’m new to this blog but a bunch of prissy, hipster AND middle class bikers ripping on working class people because you either don’t understand the “crisis” outside of your San Francisco bubble or don’t care to is sad (look up the word “neo-liberalism” and then buy a book). There are plenty of enemies here but MUNI drivers and unions (now some union leadership is certainly a target) in themselves aren’t them.

    And being paid not to work – like say the millions of middle class Americans who collect unemployment every month and don’t work. I know a great deal of them right now in SF – the way I look at it they’re taking the MUNI drivers tax money and wasting it so they can ride their bikes around and sip lattes just because there isn’t a good enough “middle-class” job for them. Guess it depends on how you look at it…but yea, keep attacking the working class and squeezing them – that tactic has always worked in the past.

  • Ms J

    Leave the Muni operators alone because all they are trying to do is make a living like everyone else!!!

  • luana

    That’s great they want to make a living. If muni drivers want to make a decent living, do a decent job. Right now they are making a killer of a living, killing the people that actually pay their saleries, the passengers. If bus driver can’t even do the only task thier job requires: driving a bus safely, why the heck should they not behind bars or at least unemployed like any other bum.

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