Supes Committee Holds off on Muni Operator Wage Proposal

3999630049_d04db5406a.jpgAn operator in training. Flickr photo: Troy Holden
A proposed ballot measure that would change the way Muni operator salaries and benefits are set didn't appear to have much steam after a tense Rules Committee meeting on Thursday.

As the SF Appeal reported, the measure was roundly opposed by the Transit Workers Union, which represents Muni operators, as well as by representatives of the firefighters and hotel workers unions. They urged the measure's sponsor, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, to kill the proposal. Both Elsbernd and the other supervisors on the Rules Committee agreed the item should be continued for discussion at the committee's next meeting.

"It is my hope that in that next week TWU will attempt to sit down with me again," said Elsbernd. "Attempts have recently been rebuffed. We do have a tentative meeting scheduled on Monday."

Things frequently got testy between Elsbernd and union representatives, who said they were being unfairly targeted. In return, Elsbernd accused union representatives of avoiding scheduling meetings with him.

Elsbernd's proposed measure would remove a provision in the city charter that sets Muni operator base wages and benefits at the average of the two highest-paying transit systems in the country. Instead, wages would be decided entirely through a collective bargaining process, as most city employee wages are. Most recently, the base wage was set to $27.91 an hour in 2008, the average of wages at Montgomery County Transit in Maryland and at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Muni operators start earning that wage after 19 months on the job. For the first 19 months, their wages gradually increase from a trainee rate of $17.58. That means a Muni operator who works 46 weeks in a year makes about $51,350 in annual base pay.

Most operators earn a significant amount of overtime and premium pay as well: the current MTA budget builds in premium and overtime pay that averages out to 30 percent of base pay per employee. The bulk of that comes from scheduled overtime. On average, that would add up to an annual income around $66,760.

Elsbernd also argued that removing the salary schedule from the charter would give the MTA's management more latitude to negotiate changes to work rules and reduce absenteeism. Supervisor Eric Mar, however, said he believes the legislation is a political move, not one designed to benefit transit riders. "Let me just say that I see this as a politically-motivated attack on the TWU and this is a measure that I don't think should be on the ballot," said Mar.

"I … appreciate that Mr. Lum and others have shown an openness to work with the MTA, Nat Ford and the MTA Board on revenue proposals and dealing with the budget crisis, but also, especially, givebacks, in this difficult budget season. I appreciate that openness and also the efforts to meet with Supervisor Elsbernd, which I hope will continue."

Rules Committee Chair David Campos also hoped discussions would continue, especially on revenue-generating proposals. His stance on the ballot measure was less clear, though he supported a move to continue discussion next week. "I do have questions about putting this on the ballot," Campos said on several occasions.

"I personally think when you look at Muni, and the issues around Muni, which are many, issues of labor are always something that you have to look at. But I don't think that that's the issue with Muni. I think the issue is much larger, which is why this Tuesday I introduced at the Board a request for a management audit of Muni," said Campos.

"You have to look structurally at the agency and ask yourself, 'Is this agency being run as efficiently, as effectively as it should be? Is this agency following best practices?'"

Elsbernd and union representatives are set to meet again on Monday to hash out details of a proposal, though Thursday's meeting didn't leave much indication of where they would find common ground.