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if the salary is already set, what ability do we have to negotiate any changes to, say, work rules that we believe are outdated, work rules that we'd like to improve," asked Elsbernd at last week's Rules Committee meeting.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.