Muni Charter Measure Supporters Take to the Streets to Collect Signatures

IMG_1793.jpgSupervisor Sean Elsbernd canvasses near West Portal station this morning. Photo: Michael Rhodes

People catching Muni near West Portal station this morning were greeted by an unusual sight: Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, and a team of volunteers were out canvassing the avenue to gather signatures for a ballot measure that would change the way the city sets Muni operator salaries.

Elsbernd, who first introduced the measure late last year only to see it receive an icy reception in a Board of Supervisors committee, said getting it on the ballot through a signature campaign was a daunting task, but so far people are receptive.

"If they give you that two seconds to talk to you about it, they’ll sign it," he said. "It’s just whether or not they’ll give you that two seconds."

After twenty minutes of standing out on West Portal Avenue, Elsbernd said he’d collected about 15 signatures. To get on the November ballot, 70,000 of San Francisco’s half-a-million registered voters must sign a petition in support of putting the measure on the ballot.

"We’ve got a lot of signatures we’ve got to collect in the next few months," Elsbernd acknowledged.

The measure would remove language from the City Charter that currently sets Muni operator salaries and benefits at the average of the two highest-paying large transit agencies in the country, instead of through a collective bargaining process. The measure’s supporters argue that the charter provision has been too costly for Muni and has given management less flexibility to negotiate better work rules.

One woman who signed the petition, Melainie Hedani, said she did so out of frustration with how poor Muni service has been recently. "I hope something comes from it," she said while waiting at the inbound West Portal platform. Trains have been increasingly crowded and unpredictable in the last two months, she added.

Most of the voters who signed the petition shared Hedani’s interest in fixing Muni, even if they didn’t have time to hear the full details of the proposal. But a San Francisco firefighter named Mark said it was wrong to target workers for the city’s budget problems.

"It’s an attack on city workers," he said. "We’re not the ones breaking the city budget."

The operators union has also strongly opposed the measure, though union representatives couldn’t be reached for comment today. In the past, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Irwin Lum has defended the current Charter provision, which he said has ensured decades of labor peace.

SPUR’s Metcalf, however, called the measure a "small but practical" way to improve Muni by ultimately reducing costs and giving the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, more leverage to negotiate operator work rules that he hopes will reduce absenteeism and make Muni more efficient.

Of course, the petition’s supporters aren’t likely to get 70,000 signatures just by hanging out on West Portal Avenue: they’re also directing people to a website,, where voters can get a signature form, and SPUR is organizing volunteers to canvass for the measure. Elsbernd said he hopes more groups will join SPUR in supporting the measure in the comings weeks.

"I think you’re going to see some other interesting groups coming on board," he said. "We’re going to build a very broad coalition around this."

They’ve also got a Facebook group and Twitter feed, though it appears both sides of the campaign have grown savvy to social media: TWU has a Facebook page now as well, and it’s clear the measure won’t go unopposed.

"Elsbernd’s Charter Amendment is not MUNI reform," reads a recent note on the TWU Facebook page. "It is plain and simply focused on attacking the Operator."

While this may be the first Muni charter amendment measure debate to take place in the age of social media, for this morning at least, the work took place out on the street.

  • andrew

    The current charter provision is only three years old, and it’s already causing havoc. It was passed as part of 2007 Prop A.

  • While I feel this probably should be done, it is HUGE political pandering. Why all this rage for something that will only pit riders vs TWU? I’m sure more then half of the riders think it is the drivers fault the bus is late and packed.

    Where is the political will to force the MTA board to do their job and find dedicated funding sources? Where is the political will to shoot down wasteful projects like the central subway?

    Don’t get me wrong, work rules need to change, but I’d like to see half this effort applied to a MTA audit.

  • patrick

    While I agree that it’s pandering, there is also a huge problem with the current operator’s contract. Personally I don’t even care about their salaries, but the work rules are partly responsible for the difficulties in managing Muni, and the absenteeism is ridiculous (especially that absenteeism is actually rewarded under the current system).

    The union has shown it is unwilling to make the necessary changes on it’s own (despite many other unions making concessions) and so I feel we need to put more pressure on them.

    Once this passes, we can redirect our focus on to management and the board, which certainly need some punishment as well, they’ve shown themselves to be fairly incompetent.

  • patrick, fair enough.

  • I don’t know what to add except to say that I 100% agree with Mikesonn. The work rules clearly need to be changed an if this is the only way to do it, so be it, but I’m not enthusiastic about the craven way that this is being done. What else has Elsbrand EVER done to improve public transit in the city?

  • While wandering into Costco the other day, I was approached with a petition that seemed to be a ballot item to establish a set aside for transit … while we all want transit fully funded, haven’t we learned that set asides suck (witness the $5 billion or so of set asides in San Francisco’s annual $6.5 billion budget … unfortunately, those things that do not have “set asides” like Public Health take the hit in deficit years … ).

    I haven’t seen this particular petition yet, but it sounds like a good idea.

  • Rob

    With everyone complaining about the salary that MUNI operators receive, who actually wants that job. I wouldn’t trade my job in which makes less money for the crap that they get from the fine residents of SF which includes but not limited to cussing at the operator, getting spit on, or pure rudeness. How many of you fine folks would want this job?

  • patrick

    Rob, who is complaining about the salary?

    This isn’t even about salary, it just removes a guarantee that salary is second in the nation.

  • @Rob In a free employment market, Muni would still be forced to offer good enough salary and benefits to attract enough drivers. It is indeed an extremely tough job, and it will continue to demand good compensation without an artificial wage floor that is nothing but counterproductive toward making Muni function.

    And I do agree that the management is certainly no less to blame; if they want to be able earn the kind of money they are, the majority of their compensation should be tied to metrics like on-time performance, ridership increase, and safety.

    It was silly to not put some tough new accountability for management in the measure: it’s desperately needed, and would end criticism of the TWU being singled out.

  • Nick

    What has Supervisor Elsbernd ever done for transit? Well, just today he was the lead story on the front page of the Examiner- advocating for transit expansion in the Parkmerced cooridor as 7,000 new units of residential housing are planned.

    The District he represents is arguably the least transit friendly. There’s only a couple of bus lines and lots of steep hills.

  • Elsbernd is on the Caltrain JPB. Caltrain staff is notoriously non-receptive to rider feedback, but we’ve gotten a lot done lately including the much needed bike space increase. While the best JPB member is Ken Yeager, Elsbernd isn’t in the way, and there have been board members who hate the cyclists.

  • rich415

    i really think this is the best thing that could have happen to the operators, why stay at second highest paid when you can negotiate to be the highest paid, thanks sean were do i sighn.

  • Chris Reyes

    Elsbernd, who probably never has taken public transportation, is using the operators to capp his resume as he runs for mayor. Comments were said that operators get paid too much. Before I started with MUNI I too was bitching and complaining about drivers this & that. Now sitting on the same side as the operators are, the job of a transit operator is not easy. Driving an 8 foot wide but on a 9foot wide lane? Being given 1-hour or less to drive end to end picking up passengers, wheelchairs, homeless, foul smelling people? Just try it one time to ride with an operator for the whole trip during rush hour. Let me know what you find out.

    BTW. How come the mayor of the board of sups havent taken a pay cut? or have they?


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