Commentary: Proposition G and the Vision of the City

Photo: ##

Editor’s note: Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University who writes about the politics of mobility, explains why he’s voting against Proposition G on November 2. We’ve invited the Yes on G side to write an op-ed and hope to publish it soon.

A lot of well-meaning people are leaning towards voting ‘Yes’ on Prop G – the ballot initiative that will amend the city charter and revise Muni operators’ salaries and work rules. They are indignant that Muni drivers got an automatic pay raise this year while at the same time Muni cut service and increased fares to plug a budget shortfall. The “Great Recession” has a lot to do with Muni’s financial crisis, but many think that Muni’s drivers should have made more sacrifices and foregone the pay raise. After all, other public sector employees have been furloughed or fired for austerity measures, so Muni drivers should also do with less. Moreover, “cleaning-up” the labor “culture” at Muni, the reasoning goes, will make the system more efficient and cost effective, and enable more flexible and nimble customer service.

But Prop G is not the way to build a sustainable transit system. In fact, Prop G could set back that effort by 40 years. Here is why.

What does Prop G do?

Prop G eliminates a 43-year-old labor formula established by voters in 1967 (ironically that ballot initiative was also called Prop G). The formula set operators salaries to “not in excess” of the average of the top two highest national transit agency pay rates. Because of this Muni drivers are the second-highest paid drivers in the nation, and pay raises are automatic. Contrary to today, in 1967 this formula had widespread support from the mayor, the entire Board of Supervisors, and Muni’s management. It was widely recognized that the formula was needed to retain a solid, experienced, professional workforce, and 55.4 percent of San Francisco agreed. The ballot argument in favor of the formula stated that “instead of disgruntled employees and labor unrest, there will be satisfied employees on the Muni.”

In the last 43 years there has been no strike at Muni and this arrangement seemed to be fine –until the Great Recession. Muni, like every other transit agency in the country, faced soaring healthcare and pension costs while local and state revenue for public transportation declined. The American Public Transit Association (APTA), public transit’s industry trade group, estimates that more than half of the nation’s transit systems have raised fares AND cut service since 2009, and 80 percent of transit agencies lost significant sources of state and local funding to support existing transit operations. Muni was among those agencies to cut service and to raise fares, mostly because of state cuts to public transportation funding, and decreases in local tax and fee revenue collections that went towards Muni. This is where some well-meaning people have erred in deciding to attack labor rather than the deeper structural problems facing public transit.

Technically today’s Prop G stems from a quibble over a modification to the pay formula made in 2007, when 55.6 percent of San Francisco voters approved Prop A, a ballot initiative that included progressive transit and parking reforms and required the city to take more concrete action regarding global warming. Prop A was a grab-bag of small, incremental reforms to Muni, but its biggest function was to stop a horrible initiative by the late Gap founder, Don Fisher, who was trying to require vast amounts of automobile parking to be built in the city. This would have had extremely negative impacts on Muni service not to mention further fueling global warming. Sustainable transportation advocates were alarmed at what a small group of wealthy elites were doing, and had to find political allies.

Prop G is nothing less than class warfare. Do progressives and sustainable transportation advocates really want to be part of that?

Labor was that ally, and in exchange for tremendous labor resources put towards defeating the parking measure and approving Prop A, a deal was made that included turning Muni operators’ wage cap into a wage base. Without this deal Don Fisher’s horrible parking measure might have passed. Some argue that while the drivers benefited from the tweaking of the formula, they were also supposed to reconsider work rules and allow more flexible (part-time) drivers. But that was not explicit in Prop A, and so that argument is more scuttlebutt than anything else.

After Prop A passed three years ago there was an opportunity to build on the progressive coalition of sustainable transit advocates and labor unions. But for one reason or another it did not materialize and the ad hoc and fragmented nature of progressive politics remained the norm. This is a key structural problem in the city that needs addressing. The transit union is just as responsible for this as anyone, but has now found itself isolated. Today many sustainable transport advocates, especially SPUR, have broken rank with the idea of such a coalition and have decided to join with the wealthy elite and go after labor. But instead of simply pressing to revoke the guarantee of automatically setting wages and benefits, they’ve decided to push the envelope and really gut the labor peace that Muni has had for 43 years.

Prop G will require that wages and benefits be set with collective bargaining rather than set automatically. Fair enough. When SFMTA management and the union reach the inevitable impasse over their contract – and they will – Prop G also forces binding arbitration. This is also normal in labor negotiations and rumor is the union has been open to it. But more significantly, Prop G directs the mediator of a contract impasse to prioritize system efficiency over workers, such that if it is found that operators’ working conditions conflict with management’s notion of how the system should be run, system optimization trumps the workers. This is a myopic and irresponsible slippery slope. It harkens back to Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, where the corporate executive speeds up the factory’s conveyor belt and forces Chaplin to work faster and faster until he goes mad. (If you do not know what I am talking about, watch this clip).

The type of arbitration that would be codified by Prop G is dangerous and spiteful towards the idea of a living wage and fair workplace. It will lead to tired bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel as they struggle to optimize runs based solely on system efficiency. It may eventually lead to a Wal-Mart style part-time structure of bus drivers with lower skills and wages and less benefits, and less interest in doing a good job. It will lead to drivers bearing more responsibility, unjustly, for the time it takes for buses to move through the car traffic that slows Muni down.

Prop G’s arbitration language is anti-labor by design. It only emphasizes how to extract more for less from labor in order to run the system more “efficiently.” Prop G does not address the endemic traffic congestion that bogs Muni down nor does it address the archaic fare collection system that forces long dwell times on most routes. It lays all of the current financial problems of Muni on the workers while ignoring the fact that downtown property owners make huge profits off of land that is made valuable by Muni access. Prop G is silent on this grave structural problem and the much-needed new revenue sources such as a transit assessment on the downtown property owners who profit from Muni access. Disingenuously, it is these corporate interests that are bankrolling Prop G, revealing that Prop G is nothing less than class warfare. Do progressives and sustainable transportation advocates really want to be part of that?

Photo: Jason Henderson

Prop G is part of a vision

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Gordon reported in July, during the signature-gathering for Prop G, corporate interests donated $325,000. Among them were the Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners and Management Association, The Committee on Jobs (downtown corporate political organization), and an assortment of other corporate interests. As of the October 5th campaign filing they’ve spent at least $466,000 promoting Prop G. Who knows what untold infusions of corporate cash will occur through the remainder of this month. But one thing is clear, when looking at the campaign filings for Prop G supporters, one does not find grassroots small-donors that the Prop G proponents would have you believe undergirds the initiative.

Before voting Yes on Prop G, people should ask – what kind of city do these organizations want and what are their true intentions? Prop G’s financial backers have a political agenda and vision of the city that is not shared by progressives or even moderates, and definitely not aligned with sustainable transportation.

To vote with these groups for Prop G is to contribute to a vision that includes downsizing and disciplining the city’s public sector workforce – not just Muni, but teachers, clerical workers, and emergency responders – many political moderates that work hard everyday and many of whom struggle to afford this city. The goal is privatization or as near to it as possible, in order to decrease taxes, weaken unions, and reduce regulation on large corporate property owners.

Regarding transportation, these organizations have offered very little in terms of ideas for making San Francisco a transit first city. In fact, they generally resist transit first at every opportunity. They want excessive parking for luxury condominiums and they have aggressively blocked efforts at increasing parking fees, creating exclusive transit-only lanes, or discussing transit assessment districts. They will fight to thwart or dilute a progressive version of congestion pricing when it is finally deliberated. And they scoff when clear evidence is made that we need way more affordable housing in this city and fewer market-rate condos. In summary, the very specific long-range political goal of the proponents of Prop G is to discipline labor unions because unions dare to challenge their vision of the city. Their broader goal is a city that exists for the accumulation of profit for the well-do do, easy driving for the rich, and a safe elite playground with ample parking.

The Bigger Picture

Californians are rightly outraged that big oil companies are financing regressive, pseudo populist initiatives like Prop 23, repealing the state’s global warming law. Yet schemes like Prop G are no different. In the case of Prop G corporate interests are manipulating public frustration over local transit problems and the broader economic crisis afflicting San Francisco and the entire nation. The “Great Recession” of 2008-2010 has debilitated public transportation systems around the country, not just Muni.

Instead of seeking ways to expand public transportation and attract more riders, San Francisco’s wealthy corporate class has decided to take advantage of the crisis and use it as an opportunity to scapegoat the 2,200 drivers and operators of Muni. Progressives, moderates, and sustainable transport advocates who have bought into the hype around “fixing” Muni should wise-up. Prop G is a slippery slope that continues the downward spiral in our society of placing blame on the workers. It is class warfare on both Muni workers and ultimately on Muni riders, and it will not create a sustainable transit system.

  • @Alex intones…

    “Aligning politically with someone who has a poor transit track record like Elsbernd”

    From my email inbox…

    On Aug 24, 2010, at 6:40 AM, Scott Wiener wrote:

    I asked Sean about your concerns regarding Cal Train. Here’s his response:
    We are looking at all kinds of other revenue ideas, and I will absolutely pass on the suggestion of a limited line on the weekends – that’s a new one to me.

    Voila! Caltrain is going to do a trial of weekend bullets. I did a lot of heavy lifting but Elsbernd had to have helped – Caltrain’s staff is a bit recalcitrant at times.

    There are plenty of general issues I think Elsbernd could help out (with a vote) on but doesn’t – but I don’t consider him anti-transit.

  • Let’s pick apart this little gem:

    “Technically today’s Prop G stems from a quibble over a modification to the pay formula made in 2007, when 55.6 percent of San Francisco voters approved Prop A, a ballot initiative that included progressive transit and parking reforms and required the city to take more concrete action regarding global warming. Prop A was a grab-bag of small, incremental reforms to Muni, but its biggest function was to stop a horrible initiative by the late Gap founder, Don Fisher, who was trying to require vast amounts of automobile parking to be built in the city. This would have had extremely negative impacts on Muni service not to mention further fueling global warming. Sustainable transportation advocates were alarmed at what a small group of wealthy elites were doing, and had to find political allies.”

    Not true. The point of the measure was to introduce some sort of dedicated funding for Muni (which Newsom and his allies proceeded to steal in violation of the spirit of the law) and to introduce measures to reform Muni internally. Labor threatened to kill the measure repeatedly and back the Fisher measure, until they got all the concessions they demanded, and more.

    I remember this because I was writing about Prop. A and the twisted process it went through. I guess it is more important to distort the past when you need to make some lefty arguement about how government is about large pay packages for people who don’t do work, paid for by folks who are underpaid and overtaxed and keep seeing services cut.

    PS: if TWU had any brains, they woulda put something on the ballot to regulate management salaries. But that would have required them not being morons, too.

  • If this is the argument against G it has certainly cemented my decision to vote yes. The only two points I can see progressives raising are that 1. G is targeting only one issue when comprehensive reform is needed and 2. G is some sort of referendum on larger class issues.

    On point 1 I completely agree: operator pay, benefits, pensions, overtime and work rules are only one area of the vast problems with Muni. There may be disagreement over how big a piece of the total problem this area comprises. There may be some interests that support reforming this area that do not support reforming other areas, including areas that may be more critical to improving the system. But it is still better to reform one area than to reform nothing at all.

    On point 2 I find completely the opposite to be the case, and find the progressives completely out of line with the values they claim to be furthering: Muni’s data shows that about 2/3rds of their riders earn less than just the base pay of an average operator. The interests of the working class are the interest of the riders much more than they are the interests of the operators. I would think that to a true progressive, reforming Muni would be about making sure someone earning the San Francisco minimum wage could enjoy fast, safe, reliable and affordable transit service, rather than worrying about whether someone makes $28/hr or $27/hr next year.

  • Jwb

    Very true Greg. I was among the first organized public opposition to Prop H and it was disheartening to me when the transit labor organizations took that issue and used it to extort the city by fusing A and H.

  • marcos

    Prop A was hideous.

    I served on the TEP CAC. The premises upon which Prop G is argued were not borne out by the MTA’s TEP data.

    Prop G is another in a long string efforts that uses Muni as a vehicle to serve political purposes other than running a functioning transit system. Newsom’s done this by hijacking Prop A money and Elsbernd is doing it to jumpstart his Assembly bid.


  • marcos

    The reason why rider incomes are so low is that we’ve endured 30 years of this supply side economic policy where all government assistance goes to management and all pain is borne by rank and file.

    If we continue down this path with measures like Prop G, then that will contribute its part to the ongoing deflationary wage spiral.

    Sean Elsbernd has no track record to speak of concerning Muni, only signing onto the work orders while on the Finance Committee and opposing efforts at reining them in.

  • Mark Ballew


    There is a lot you can do, some of it is as simple as showing up to a public meeting during the day and talking for 30 seconds. I’m on the board of Rescue Muni and there are many simple things things you can do that can help; in this city decisions can often be made by those who just show up. Email me at if you want to learn more.

  • Andy Chow

    One of the real reasons why a lot of SF people earn less than the drivers is because many of them work in small businesses, where customers and revenues are not consistent.

    Transit drivers earn the same hourly wage whether they drive a 14-Mission or 39-Coit, whether the bus is packed or empty. They don’t bear the risk for poor transit planning and traffic conditions. If there’s some major events in SF that requires extra Muni service, these drivers get to earn overtime pay.

    What the measure opponents fail to do is to show that keeping the guaranteed pay hike for the drivers would somehow benefit the riders who make less than the drivers. Complaining about greedy corporations won’t help, because defeating Prop G won’t change anything for the rest of us.

    Also, while it is solely a TWU issue, labor groups have a history of supporting poor transit and highway projects just because they want construction jobs at the expense for effective planning. Unfortunately labor groups have a history of looking the other way on other unions. If someone were to fight against a bad project (which would hurt transit operations) supported by construction unions, don’t count on TWU to oppose that bad project.

  • Lisa

    I’ve read all of the above comments and it is unfortunate that there is no simple solution. Muni’s management continues to change and has drastically affected the riders in past few yeas; but to put the blame on the drivers isn’t a solution either. It is a fact that every time management changes the riding public is affected and the drivers are an easy target and also the only people they can take their frustrations out on.

    Right or wrong drivers don’t make the rules. Here is just a suggestion. How about doing a little research when discussing work rules. Read MOU Article 11 regarding Part Time Operators. In 2007 Director Michael Burns(CEO before Nate Ford) decided to convert all Part Time Operators to full time as a cost saving measure. This is the true reason there are no Part Time Operators. Also read up on the absenteeism & discipline if an Operator abuses one/both issues.

    I could continue to quote the MOU but is sounds like that is not going to matter. Before making comments try and do a little research. This is in no way to disrespect anyone’s comments but for Elsbernd to out right be dishonest is deceitful to those who really want factual information.

    The issue is how Prop G is written. Drivers will not be in collective bargaining like other city workers. It tells the arbitrator how to arbitrate. It’s not “real reform” and it still gives the power to those who lack transportation experience and continue to abuse the system. They never hire within. This might be part of the problem.

    Why are riders not upset with those who have abused the system and go directly after them? If it is driver, then discipline that particular driver.

    If it is the decision of upper management, discipline upper management.

    Now who will discipline the SFMTA, the Mayor and/or the Board of Supervisors for the unaccountable $62 million that was not used for transportation?

    Seems the same as when the stimulus money was issued to the Banks, AIG, Walls Street and GM. By voting yes of Prop G you are still allowing the people responsible not to be held accountable and the big businesses to avoid paying transportation taxes which the city so desperately needs. This is the agenda Sean Elsbernd is desperately trying to avoid.

    Wages are a serious subject and I don’t think anyone wants to go backwards. But mis-managing funds is just as serious. I know we all have to pay taxes and consider what’s happening with the economy. So why are the big businesses getting away with not paying?

    How about giving an arbitrator who is neutral and has no interest in either side some proposals that will not only save the city money but make money as well?

    Hypothetically speaking. How does Prop G deal with equipment failure, subway delays, police/fire activity blocking the movement of vehicles, traffic and unexpected emergencies without affecting the riders?

    Vote No on Prop G. It isn’t the answer.

  • marcos

    So where were all of the Prop G supporters who now sanctimoniously put forth the issue of rider equity when the MTA doubled fares over the past five years while cutting service and seeing performance decline?

    All I’m seeing are San Francisco’s “moderates” (those who support same sex marriage as well as trickle down supply side economics) advocating balancing the MTA budget on the backs of riders and operators, leaving Newsom and Ford to pilfer the agency’s budget at will.

    When you allow your resentments to be leveraged against riders and operators, you open the door for resentments to be leveraged against you, and you are next.


  • Justin

    SteveS writes above in his second point:

    “On point 2 I find completely the opposite to be the case, and find the progressives completely out of line with the values they claim to be furthering: Muni’s data shows that about 2/3rds of their riders earn less than just the base pay of an average operator. The interests of the working class are the interest of the riders much more than they are the interests of the operators. I would think that to a true progressive, reforming Muni would be about making sure someone earning the San Francisco minimum wage could enjoy fast, safe, reliable and affordable transit service, rather than worrying about whether someone makes $28/hr or $27/hr next year.”

    Your logic is unbelievably twisted here Steve. I’m kind of blown away actually by how myopic your argument is, but its a logic you share with a lot of the other posters here. To put it very simply, your logic is that the solution is a race-to-the-bottom. It just makes no sense to argue for the lowering of MUNI operator salaries to the level of the ridership. The interests of the working classes are those of BOTH Muni riders and drivers. As much as you guys want to bash these people, they are not a monied aristocracy–they are unionized transit workers. Let’s be very clear about what we’re talking about here. The level of disdain and rhetoric directed at these folks, and the logic behind your argument that they should make less, suggests your target is overpaid financial services CEOs and not transit workers. I absolutely agree that we need to help make things better for the ridership more than we do for the drivers. The drivers are fine, of course as things are. But the way to make things better for the riders is not to focus so maniacally on driver pay. Marcos is dead-on. Part of the reason the people on the bus make much less is because of the chiseling away of pay and benefits in other industries and job sectors. I want no part of a race to the bottom. There are other culprits here than the people doing the work.


  • @Justin I don’t mean to imply that anyone should deride the hard work that operators do, or that we should start paying them minimum wage. I’m simply pointing out that if you take a step back, operators are better off than the average San Franciscan, and studies show riders are disproportionately less well off than the city average. Therefore if the concerns of operators are to become a social concern, surely the concerns of riders must be an even greater one.

    There should be many areas where the concerned of operators and riders are aligned and we can work toward both ends at once, for example better security on buses would result in more safety and a less hostile work environment for operators, as well as for riders. More runs during peak demand would mean more jobs for the union and better service for riders. But of course when you talk about compensation (not just for operators of course: all the way to the top), there is an opposing interest for the rider to pay the lowest possible fare and the employees of the MTA to receive the highest possible compensation.

    Operators should be given the compensation required to attract and retain qualified, safe, reliable staff with excellent customer service skills. By no means will this be a low wage that induces a “race to the bottom,” especially with the conditions they are forced to work under at Muni. Therefore it is unnecessary and counterproductive to set their wage by an unsustainable formula rather than working to find what this appropriate rate is.

    I think your comparison to overpaid financial services CEOs is very apt. A lot of research has been done into the ridiculous rise in executive compensation over the last two decades, and one of the primary culprits has been found to be the benchmarking that compensation consultants do. Every firm decides they want the best CEO, so they decide to pay theirs 20% more than the competition. Every year, all the consultants do a benchmark, and find that average compensation has gone up 20%, so they all tack on a few million more stock options on for next year.

    By benchmarking to the top two rates in the nation Muni has put in exactly the same sort of unsustainable formula. Its costs are guaranteed to rise faster than the national average as it is looking at two outliers rather than looking at a median and adjusting for cost of living.

    The bottom line is, if you want to lower fares and improve transportation for the city’s most vulnerable, Muni has to become more efficient. A lot more of this has to come from eliminating bad management, broken systems and bad decision making on capital projects, and if you can get a reform measure on the next ballot to address this I will definitely vote for it as well.

  • City79

    Plain and simple, times they are a changing. But not at Muni unless we vote yes on Prop G.

    Muni’s work rules are antiquated and are unable to be revised under the current system. How driver’s are assigned to run is grossly inefficient. And to those that say by voting yes on Prop G would force operators to work longer and harder, you are correct. Right now Muni is a country club. Operating transit vehicles is indeed hard work but Muni operators aren’t working nearly to the level of similarly sized transit properties but are getting paid much more.

    If current practices are dismantled through Prop G then there are perfectly fine labor rules already established in the State of California that other transit providers follow and abide by without drivers careening over the wheel from fatigue. And, Muni and union can certainly establish their own work rules that trump some state and federal work rules that would benefit both parties mutually.

    Wake up people, complacency and status quo is so 2000 (look where that has gotten us.) Times are different now and we shouldn’t settle for anything less than a healthy partnership between Muni and Union that will provide our fine city with an efficient, safe public transit system. But until labor work rules are made reasonably efficient… we’ll be in the same transit financial hole that we are in now for a very long time. VOTE YES ON G.

  • marcos

    The times are changing only if we let them. If you want to live in a country where the economic system won’t pay a good middle class wage, won’t make affordable, quality health care available, won’t provide for a dignified retirement for working folks, then go with Prop B and Prop G and the kind of change that only billionaires will like.

    I am sorry that some of you all grew up knowing nothing but Reaganism. Having lived through three decades of that crap, my concern for your delusions only goes so far. American standards of living must fall due to the resistance of the global south to our imposing brutal squalor on them so that we can steal their raw materials. But the terms of distribution of our national product are up for grabs. The problem is that only one side is fighting in this class war. If Prop B and G were not a wake up call, then it is clear that labor will only defend their good deals and will not be part of a proactive coalition to defend America’s middle class.

    As far as the economics go, $25K = $50K take home before taxes. San Francisco’s median income for a single individual is like $60K. Perhaps Muni operators earn more than the median rider, but they fall below the median income for the City.

    Whenever the answer is to beat on the riders and operators before the managers, politicians and corporations who fund tea parties to continue to evade paying their fair share of taxes, we know that FoxNEWS has done its job and successfully defined the discourse.


  • According to the Census’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey:

    San Francsico median earnings for male full-time, year-round workers $62,783

    San Francisco median earnings for female full-time, year-round workers $52,849

    According to Streetsblog (1/29/2010):

    Average Muni operator pay (base plus overtime): $66,760

    Now I’d like to say again that I’d much prefer it if there were a comprehensive reform measure on the ballot and not one that focused solely on operator compensation and work rules. But in the absence of an option to vote for comprehensive reform, I will vote for partial reform.

    Rather than directing all the anger at Elsbernd for putting this half-measure on the ballot, why isn’t there also outrage at everyone else in city hall for not doing anything about management accountability?

  • Alex

    Marcos: name one other transit agency, ideally at least as large as SFMTA, that’s got a wage floor (aside from national and local minimum wages)? Negotiating your wages and submitting to binding arbitration are hardly tactics out of the dark ages.

    Lisa: Keep in mind that with a ~25% rate of absenteeism, part-time workers are nearly useless. Why? Because as per the MOU they can’t fill in for sick full-time workers. Let’s not forget all of the wage premiums spelled out in the MOU either. While Prop G doesn’t eliminate these silly rules, by requiring the TWU to negotiate their wages perhaps it will spur some sense of cooperation.

  • What will you all say after the union’s back is broken, salaries are slashed, and drivers are defeated and the MUNI is STILL underfunded, service sucks even more, the state is still broke and unemployment nationwide is over 10%? Who will attack then? Please number your list for me.

  • marcos

    Those operator salaries are right around median income, nothing wrong with that.

    Is the suggestion that the cost of living in the SF Bay Area does not warrant the second highest wages in the nation?

    Look, either we pay operators a premium and hope they live close in to the City, or we lower their pay and they have to commute in by private auto for those early morning rush hour runs and have to deal with even crabbier operators who end up driving 12 hours a day.

    BELIEVE ME, I’ve expressed my outrage against my progressive nonprofit friends for putting their narrow job interests (a few hundred) and the slightly broader nonprofit constituencies (a few tens of thousands) before the interests of hundreds of thousands of Muni riders per year and with my friends on the Board of Supervisors for enabling that massive mistake.

    The politically suicidal decision to first water down and then yank the MTA Charter Reform measure spells the end of my participatory role in politics after ten years, as a matter of fact. I don’t not get paid in order to create mega chits for people who barely tolerate me to continue to get paid at their poverty maintenance organizations.


  • Alex

    So, Marcos, why do we pay a premium for drivers who predominantly commute by private auto? By your logic, shouldn’t we cut[1] the salaries? They get free parking while at work, and the TWU ensures that their functions (even ones where alcohol is served) have copious free parking as well.

    1: Noting, of course, that Prop G doesn’t guarantee or spell out any sort of change in salary in the first place.

  • marcos

    It is difficult for someone not established making $60K/yr to find housing in San Francisco, especially for families. Housing inflation combined with lagging wages–yes, automatic raises have not kept up with the price of housing–pushes operators out to the exurbs.

    The argument is that the MTA needs wage flexibility in order to coerce work rule reforms. The consequences of downwards wage flexibility are a negative for the system as I’ve demonstrated, and nobody ever seems to be able to provide an example of a work rule that needs changing.

    Anything to distract attention away from the people responsible for strangling public transit–the Mayor and Muni senior management (not Sonali).


  • Alex

    So the drivers already live elsewhere and commute via personal automobile, and we should continue to pay a premium for *that*? Right-o.

    “nobody ever seems to be able to provide an example of a work rule that needs changing”

    See, now you’re not even trying.

  • marcos

    $26.00/hour is not a premium, it is a basic middle class wage well within the median for SF and the Bay Area which remains amongst the most expensive metro areas in the US.

    Management has yet to propose any work rule changes which is possible under the current arrangements.

    Whenever I ask a proponent of work rule changes for suggestions, they go blank, as if the mere waving of the hands and appeals to the obvious were sufficient. Perhaps they are in an electoral campaign, but what happens after the measure passes and the system still sucks?


  • Mick


    Discussions of how much money people need in the Bay Area is irrelevant. People should get paid the minimum necessary to get adequately competent people to do the job.

    Many private bus drivers get paid half the muni rate, with worse benefits, and yet they seem to be better drivers.

    So muni operators should be paid what they are worth and not what they, you or anyone else thinks they need. It’s irrelevant whether they that’s enough for them to live well or just adequately.

    So let’s keep the debate to what they are worth and not a theoretical discussion of how tough it is to live here. Not everyone can afford to live well in SF but that shouldn’t be fixed on the taxpayer’s dime.

  • Mick – I assume you are with the Tea Party in declaring the Minimum Wage is unconstitutional and should be abolished?

  • Alex

    Oh come on Marcos. The whole reason the TWU sued to prevent the restoration of service was that the MTA was trying to implement changes in the work rules. Hell, you could go back through any number of my posts (or those that others have written) for other suggested changes. You could go through the MOU too. Nothing’s gone blank. Off the top of my head I can think of three broad *categories* of rules that need to be changed or abolished before the MTA can implement increased service without sinking themselves with debt.

  • Mick


    If you think that muni operators get minimum wage then you are clearly not well enough informed about this issue.

    Many people do live in SF on a minimum wage, including just about the entire hospitality and retail industry, and they seem to manage it.

    It is not a tea party policy to try and obtain the best possible value for taxpayers, and not overpaying muni operators would be a great start.

  • Mick – you said “should be paid what they are worth and not what they, you or anyone else thinks they need.” Is a burger flipper at McDonalds worth $10 an hour? If not, then we need to get rid of that minimum wage so the dollar menu can be moved to its rightful place as the 77 cents menu.

    Not sure what circles you run in but I know people at the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum. And the people on the low ends really struggle. “Managing it” – if by you mean the checking account not going below zero, doesn’t really cut the mustard if they turn 70, can’t bus tables anymore, and still have zero.

    I absolutely agree with G – but it’s entirely possible that the city would not be able to negotiate a better deal. Maybe nobody would be willing to drive homeless drunks through Bayview for less. We really don’t have direct evidence that a lower pay scale would result in attracting enough of the right workers. But we won’t know until the rules change.

    FIX MUNI doesn’t claim that the workers are overpaid and need a cut. They are focused on improving the overall negotiations and the work rules which are clearly problematic – which might be a cut.

    Running off at the mouth saying “we are overpaying the drivers” might feel good, but it’s not very savvy politically if you do indeed support G. The people who think they are overpaid will already be voting for G, your message doesn’t get them a second vote. But it might turn off the people in the middle who will be deciding the election.

  • Alex

    Murph: I see one of the following happening:

    – Drivers accept wage concessions to maintain existing work rules. Service still sucks, but a few extra drivers are thrown into the fray.

    – Drivers accept work rule concessions in exchange for maintaining the existing base pay. Drivers are still expensive, but service would likely improve as they can be utilized more efficiently. This is certainly the way I’d like to see things go down.

    – Drivers accept neither and work without a contract, the MTA goes more into debt, and MUNI service continues its death spiral.

    – Same as previous but the drivers strike just to show the folks of San Francisco who’s boss. That death spiral tightens a bit.

    The selling point as I see it is not that wage cuts are guaranteed but that the MTA will have additional bargaining power and that might just force the TWU into a position where they’re more likely to agree to much needed changes.

    FWIW, I voted against G. I’d be just as happy to see the TWU bring the MTA to its knees. If things get that bad perhaps the TWU will go the way of PATCO and labor relations will improve. Sure, that’s the unnecessarily tedious and acrimonious way of accomplishing change… but it’d still be change. Let the TWU reap what they sow. It’s worked very well for the UAW and CAW so far.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think the wage itself is an issue. The issue is about the ability to control wages. The current rule leaves the wage to be set by other unions in other transit agencies.

    Getting a pay increase despite drop in tax revenue doesn’t make sense. Without having an ability to control wages, the only option left is layoffs. Some drivers would get a pay raise, while others would have to get unemployment and a new job.

  • Lefty

    The argument that we shouldn’t support Prop G because it’s got the backing of “corporate interests” is as dogmatic and insulting as right-wing dismissals of ideas that come from “big labor” or “Nancy Pelosi.” You’re playing the same rhetorical game from the other extreme. Let us decide whether the idea has merit, no matter who’s backing it. People — not the rich elite, but Muni riders, two-parent-worker families, and yes, even vegan bicyclists — are fed up that Muni employees aren’t negotiating on the same level playing field. BRT and congestion pricing are good, interesting ideas, and let’s consider them on their merits after we pass Prop G.

  • Fran Taylor

    “Many people do live in SF on a minimum wage, including just about the entire hospitality and retail industry, and they seem to manage it.”

    Has this commenter never heard of Local 2, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union? Workers in the union, which covers all the big hotels, don’t make huge sums, but they earn way over minimum wage, thanks to savvy representation and solidarity with one another.

  • Mick


    I know several restaurant and bar workers that make and live off minimum wage.

    The fact that there is a union out there which artificially inflates the pay of some of them to a level above what the market can reasonable sustain may be true but is hardly a desirable thing for the business vitality of the city.

    It is the unions that are causing the financial problems that we are seeing in muni and elsewhere. The average non-union city taxpayer is ill-served by the militant advocacy of unions for a “lucky” minority.

  • City79

    Can I just mention that we dont necessarily know what sort of household situation minimum-wage employees come from. For all we know it could take two families or multiple incomes for them to survive. For myself who makes over 50k per year, I couldnt fathom living in the city because I wouldn’t be able to “live.” I would be house poor and it wouldnt even be my house.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    All this class warfare claptrap is irrelevant. Muni operators do a bad job, and the work rules need to be reformed. Without wage negotiations, no progress can be made on the work rules. QED.

    The question of whether some workers in San Francisco make more or less than others has no bearing on the incontrovertible fact that the average Muni operator is a goldbricking jerk who misses a shift every week.

  • Muni driver

    Most of you on here posting seem to be well educated individuals but frankly your all innorent to the facts.I’ve been driving about 3yrs an I’ll tell you the pay is not worth the shit I shovel from the riding public yes you. …. Until u spend a day in my shoes don’t say shit about how I should get’ll all pampered like babys that don’t really realize how good you all have it. But management has pull the wool over your eyes this and any other proposition won’t get you the results you all seek until your willing to invest the money an time to revamp the system meaning having standards of operations on the equipment and real time schedules and seeking money from business that gain greatly from muni without having the responsibility to pay for it. Charge them for the improvements cause they sure make money from the system with zero responsibility……. 90% of you couldn’t hack a day in my shoes.

  • andrew

    “a quibble over a modification” is not borderline dishonest – it’s an outright lie. The 2007 Prop A changed a maximum into a minimum. That’s no quibble.

  • Ajay

    Everyone’s talking, but no one’s listening.

    Here’s a basic fact: if people were *not* fed up with the MUNI drivers, they would not vote for Prop G. If MUNI was run wonderfully and the riders were happy, do you think they would vote to rock the boat? Voters/riders are not stupid, you know.

    I am voting for Prop G because I think it will restore the balance between management and drivers.

    Yesterday I was at the Safeway. The lines at the checkout were long. The manager came up, saw this, and told a few more people to come to the registers. Problem solved. That, my friends, is called “customer service”.
    And yet our highly-paid MUNI employees can’t even be bothered to lift an eyebrow for customers.

  • Can I conclude that you aren’t going to post any more of my comments?

  • Alex

    @Andy That’s exactly my point. The TWU will look out for itself first, other labor unions second, and when it suits them they’ll pretend to support the riders interests. All of the outrage over misspending is a load of crap. Where was their outrage over the funding for the central subway to nowhere? Over any of the other pork projects? Having the TWU represented on the so-called riders’ union solidifies the reputation of the SFTRU as a joke. It’s out merely to bolster the interests of the TWU, not the riders.

    And to those who actually believe Jason’s outrageous lies of ‘labor peace’, aside from the wildcat strike in 05, Greg over at the N Judah Chronicles has detailed a list of other anti-rider tactics that the TWU (200 and 250A) have taken in recent memory. Work slowdowns? Now that’s mature.

    To that I’ll add: I just looked over some of the numbers put out by the MTA. Without failure, the proportion of runs worked in overtime doubles over the weekends. From around 3% during the week to nearly 8% during the weekends of September 2010. Similarly the percentage of runs not-out during the week hovers around 1.5% and typically exceeds 2%. Sure sounds like the TWU’s members don’t like working weekends.

    Let’s not forget that absenteeism is still a huge issue during the week too. Overall you’re looking at 23-26% of the drivers employed by the MTA being unable/unwilling to work. In the Green (LRV) division, the median absentee rate was 30%!!! That means for half of last month, 30-33% of the LRV drivers were unavailable/unwilling to work. One third of the qualified rail drivers gone. Poof. Just like that. Other cities like New York, Philly, Seattle, Los Angeles, etc have much lower absentee rates (6-12%).

    While Prop G won’t magically fix the slackers, it would send a message that the TWU’s got to earn their perks. Forming fake riders’ unions, threatening riders and voters, and just generally whinging won’t garner much sympathy for the TWU. In fact, I bet the public perception of the TWU was not one of a downtrodden working class group of folks but more of a group of boys who cried wolf.

    The TWU is in need of an attitude adjustment, not a PR adjustment. Perhaps at some point they’ll realize this and stop blowing their union dues on slick campaign flyers.

  • Alex

    @Muni driver That crass attitude of superiority is exactly why the TWU does not belong on the so-called riders’ union. Perpetuating an adversarial relationship with management is one thing (and, really, a poor tactic in and of itself), but perpetuating an adversarial relationship with the riders is worse.

    Have you ever stopped and wondered if maybe the reason that your job is so tough is because you and your union brethren make it so tough? Have you ever wondered if antagonizing the riders leads to dealing with more abusive riders?

  • Alex

    Correction: As I was only looking at the last week of September for the absentee stats, here’s what it looks like for the whole month of September:

    Across all divisions: Q2=24%, Q4=26% (vs 23, 26 respectively).
    Green division: Q2=25.5%, Q4=32.5% (vs 30, 32.5 respectively).

  • @Muni Driver – sounds like you need a new job…

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    Ajay, your anecdote about Safeway indicates management being responsible for fixing a problem. The employees there very likely couldn’t make the decision to open more registers: if the registers hadn’t been opened, it would have been a management problem, not a worker problem. Similarly, there are lots of problems at Muni that the workers can’t fix without management help, and bear no responsibility for. Prop G shouldn’t be about those problems.

    Alex, you’re a rider perpetuating an adversarial relationship with the operators. Have you wondered if antagonizing the operators leads to dealing with more jerk operators? Either side can turn the other cheek first, but you only have control over your own behavior, so it’s kind of hypocritical to ask the operators to be deferential when you haven’t done anything to deserve it yet.

    That said, Ajay’s right about his first point: the TWU’s refusal to help out with the budget shortfall this spring is a large reason I voted for Prop G. Prop A’s wage minimum in 2007 was an olive branch inviting the TWU to work with the transit system rather than just negotiating with it/us. This spring demonstrated to me that they’d rejected the olive branch, so now it’s time to go back to negotiations. That doesn’t make them bad people or selfish, it just means we have to stay on a lower level of collaboration for now.

    But we don’t want to stay there forever either. I think that’s why Dave Snyder invited the TWU to sit on the SFTRU’s steering committee ( it’s another olive branch to see if we can work together instead of competing with each other.

  • Alex

    Nice try, but no cigar, Jeff. I’d love nothing more than to see a cooperative relationship between riders and drivers… but a cooperative relationship does not mean that the interested parties will agree on everything, nor does it mean that the interested parties should turn the other cheek in the face of egregious rhetoric[1]. Likewise, refusing to stoop to the level of placing the entire blame on management is absolutely not perpetuating an adversarial relationship.

    I’m not looking to prove anything, but you’re certainly welcome to go back through my comments in this post, the anti-prop G post, or elsewhere on Streetsblog to get a more complete picture of what I’ve advocated. If you’re going to characterize me as being anti-driver, at least read what I’ve posted so you can get your facts straight.

    I’d strongly encourage you to not read between the lines. Prop G is about the drivers’ MOU, it is not about management . As has been stated by other posters, find me some constructive reform ideas, and I’ll support them. But for now, in a discussion about Prop G, to lay blame and acrimony on management is merely a cheap slight of hand.

    In fact, promoting a proper riders-first union is not promoting an adversarial relationship any more than a trade union that puts its members first. Take a look at the ILWU for an example of a union that’s managed to rise above petty bickering and create a reasonable discourse. That said, it’s not merely Lum’s membership on the so-called riders’ union that is problematic. It’s that the so-called riders’ union has started down the path of adopting the TWU’s fervent anti-management above all else rhetoric.

    We’ve already been over this, but to characterize the so-called riders’ union’s choice of including Lum on their steering committee as inclusive is about as far from the truth as possible. There are plenty of other front line MTA employees who put up with shit (ex: fare cops whose ONLY job is to put up with SHIT) that are not represented on the so-called riders’ union. Likewise while Lum’s extra-curricular union has publicly singled out the drivers as needing kind treatment, they’ve left the fare cops, PCOs, station agents, even the SFPD who ride MUNI out in the cold. The so-called riders’ union is not promoting cooperation in any sense of the word. They’re promoting the drivers’ agenda.

    Cooperation does not mean embracing trojan horses.

    1: To characterize collective bargaining (which is what Prop G is promoting) as anti-worker, classist, and antagonistic is just absurd.

  • Alex

    @marcos To further underscore how silly the idea that the MTA has neither put forth a list of ideal modifications to the work rules or that the ballot box was the first step…. well… take a look at the MTA’s performance audit, Chiu’s response, and more importantly the MTA’s response (10 May 2010 — SFMTA Performance Audit Response / SFMTAPerformanceAuditResponse-5.10.10.docAccessible.pdf) to Chiu.

    Look for the following text to be repeated ad nauseam:


    There are PLENTY of suggested changes that the TWU has balked at without fail. As far as I can tell, out of the drivers, riders, and MTA management… the *only* group that has routinely failed to come up with any constructive suggestions is the TWU[1].

    The MTA was to have a detailed response to the “THIS ITEM REQUIRES INDEPTH ANALYSIS” bits by the 28th of May. If it was published, it should be on the MTA’s web site.

    1: While catchy, “CHOP FROM THE TOP” is not constructive in the slightest.

  • geee

    Really? There is a grand conspiracy led by SPUR and the chamber to crush Muni drivers and support big business instead? Really? I disagree with much of Spur’s perspective on things, I sometimes find their policy perspectives too moderate. And more often than not – I disagree with the Chamber. But they aren’t evil overlords trying to lead Muni to demise. From what I can tell Prop G removed all previous ballot box labor negotiations and returned the conversation to the employees and the City.

    Unions have their value, especially for marginalized workers. However the institution of unions has equal if not greater corruption and self interest, as the supporters of Prop G.

    It’s much easier to think this policy question through, and really all policy questions through, if you assume the person you disagree with is not out to ruin the world.

    Are cyclist out to ruin the lives of car drivers? or do they just want a safe place to ride?


Proposition G and the Fix Muni Syndrome

As the November election draws near and the bunkers are dug on either side of San Francisco’s Proposition G, the Fix Muni Now ballot measure spearheaded by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the rhetoric is escalating, with Mayor Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Editorial Board and Elsbernd on one side decrying Muni operators for taking raises […]

Today’s Headlines

SF Gate: “Proposition G Could Reroute Muni” Muni’s “A” Fast Pass and Disabled Pass Transitioning to Clipper in November (BCN via SF Appeal) SF Unified School District to Consider Cutting Bus Service for Students (SF Examiner) Prop AA Would Raise Vehicle Registration Fees to Fix Potholes, Pay for Bike, Ped Improvements (SF Gate) Parking a […]