SPUR Director: Muni Drivers Deserve Good Pay, But Work Rules Must Change

3836058223_c98984c86e.jpgFlickr photo: tehf0x
With Muni riders looking for somewhere to direct their frustration at potential service cuts and fare increases, and with the Mayor eager to frame the MTA's budget deficit as a choice between labor concessions and fare hikes, it's easy to view a proposed charter amendment that would change how Muni driver salaries are set as a shot at transit operators.

But SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, who's drafting the amendment along with Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, said the point isn't to scapegoat drivers, but to fix some of Muni's most persistent service problems, like the high rate of absenteeism that leads to frequent missed runs.

Operators, said Metcalf, have a hard job and deserve to be fairly compensated. For many drivers, the job is a hard-earned but solid path to the middle class. But by setting transit operator salaries automatically at the second-highest rate in the country, MTA management has removed any incentive for operators to allow revisions to work rules that hobble Muni performance, said Metcalf. A November ballot measure would revise the City Charter so salaries and benefits are set entirely through collective bargaining.

"We want to write a squeaky-clean good-government charter provision that does not go after any specific work rules, but rather sets up conditions for fair collective bargaining," Metcalf said. "It puts a lot of sunshine around it. Voters get to understand what is being negotiated. The hope is that, over time, labor and management can work out a better way to run Muni."

Metcalf insisted that the measure is not intended to be punitive against drivers. "Being a driver is a really hard job," he said. "In the end, what we've got to get to is a culture where people are happy to go to work and people feel taken care of and work hard and they get paid well for working hard."

"It is basically the same system virtually every other union and city government has," he added. "There is no way anyone in good faith can say that is anti-labor."

So far, said Metcalf, SPUR and Elsbernd are the only parties working on the measure, but that may soon change. Plenty of transit advocates support setting Muni operator salaries entirely through collective bargaining -- in part to improve work rules that lead to high absenteeism rates and missed runs -- though publicly supporting a measure doggedly opposed by the operators union is a tough choice for some. The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, aside from Elsbernd, also gave the measure a chilly response.

What's more, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, is getting much of the heat for the current budget mess, after members rejected a concessions package that would have saved the MTA $15 million over two years. Metcalf said that, though operator concessions would help with this year's $16.9 million budget shortfall and the cumulative $100 million projected shortfall for the next two years, he doesn't propose that operator salaries alone should be targeted as a solution.

Much of the MTA's budget deficit is due to the state's pillaging of $179 million in transit assistance funds over the past three years, so rising driver salaries alone did not plunge the agency into its current state. A new Muni rider coalition is also striving to stop the portrayal of drivers as the problem. In balancing the current budget, Metcalf agrees, and points out that SPUR is working on an "alternative budget" to the one MTA staff is presenting that would look hard at other solutions.

"These two issues should be totally separated," he said. "We've got to balance this year's budget, we've got to balance next year's budget, and we've got to come up with a structure that's going to work in the long run."

The measure's language will likely be finalized within the next few weeks. Once it's ready, its supporters will be collecting signatures to try to get it on the November ballot.

Update: At least one local transit advocacy organization is publicly on-board with the proposal. That's Rescue Muni, which helped write the charter provision creating the MTA in 1999. "We support it," wrote Rescue Muni's Andrew Sullivan in an email. "As part of Prop. A in 2007, we were promised that the union would bargain work rules for the additional pay required by the new formula. This has not happened, so the only alternative is to do away with the formula and require Muni operators to collectively bargain like all other city workers."