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Muni drivers try to shift the bulls-eye

SF Public Press
 — Jul 19 2010 - 3:20pm

UPDATE: The Fix Muni campaign has qualified its reform measure for the November ballot and a hearing on David Campos' Muni reform ballot measure will be held Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee, beginning at 10 a.m. in Room 263 at City Hall. In another development since the story first ran, half of the 10 percent Muni cuts are now scheduled to be restored later in the year.

Hands clasped and brows furrowed, Gabriel Desalla sat quietly for the first half of the Bay Area Transportation Advisory Committee meeting.

He is one of 2,172 union workers in the transit agency who are under increasing pressure to make concessions that would restore recently cut Muni services. In a small conference room in Bayview-Hunters Point San Francisco, Desalla waits for committee president, Emanuel Andreas, to open the floor for discussion. The topic, as usual, is the ongoing battle over salaries, health benefits and work rules. The SFMTA says that reforms are needed to improve financial efficiency but many Muni drivers are resistant to the changes proposed.

Andreas, Desalla and others in the small, 37-member grassroots group want to avoid a fight by convincing members of Transit Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents the drivers, to be more willing to compromise with the SFMTA.

The group’s efforts seemed to be gaining ground as union negotiators agreed to the city's concessions and took the plan to the drivers. But the drivers rejected the agreement on June 11. Andreas said in an Email that the concessions were voted down because the union officials refused to debate the issue before the vote.

The concessions would include changes to healthcare benefits for dependents, the instigation of part-time drivers and work rules that only allow overtime pay after a 40-hour workweek.

One Muni driver, Philip Aragon, said he voted no because the Union did not adequately clarify what these concessions entailed. Andreas has said that one reason drivers rejected the concessions was because they would mean that the SFMTA would not be required to give part-time staffers benefits — a policy that could lead to full-time operators losing work hours.

Following the vote, Mayor Gavin Newson and SFMTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford asked the rank-and-file to recast their votes, but there has been no movement from the union in response. Not only do tensions between the SFMTA and the drivers’ union have a history, but power struggles over Muni operations, between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, do as well. A Muni reform ballot measure spearheaded by Supervisor David Campos that gives the Board more power over picking SFMTA appointees is nothing new.

In 2005, the Board attempted to gain some control over the agency with a similar measure, but it lost at the polls.

The new reform efforts are now rearing their heads in the midst of the state’s biggest budget crisis in recent history and a controversial audit that was publicized last month.

In January, Campos initiated an audit of the SFMTA, and on May 11 — three days after 10 percent Muni cuts went into effect — the audit revealed consequences of work rules that cost the SFMTA a annual $3 million.

A grass-roots campaign, Fix Muni Now, has cropped up in response to the audit, with the intention of reforming Muni work rules and salary decisions. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association are heading the effort.

They hope to gather 73,000 signatures by July 7 to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would make drivers collectively bargain for their wages and work rules, meant to save the city money and make Muni run more efficiently. On a recent Saturday morning, Elsbernd and Supervisor Carmen Chu stood at a busy street corner, collecting signatures. Elsbernd’s first talking point with passer-bys was drivers’ salary — and how, by changing a city charter, Muni drivers would no longer be required to be the second highest paid in the nation, which is currently required by a city charter.

Chu, who represents the Sunset District, said that Muni issues especially affect her residents because it can take them over an hour on the transit system just to get downtown.

“Not one thing will be the magic silver bullet that will fix it, but we do think that having collective bargaining is one way in which the city can negotiate and see improvement,” Chu said. “This ballot measure doesn’t take away their pay, doesn’t lower their pay, all it says is that the city should be able to negotiate what those conditions should be.”

But for 12-year Muni veteran Roy Flugence, who lives in the Bayview District with his wife, the mere prospect of pay-cuts is worrisome. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck — it’s not what people think it is for transit operators,” he said. Most drivers cannot afford homes in the city, and according to the SFMTA, only 43 percent of drivers list San Francisco as their residence.

BAYTAC president, Andreas, said that the difference between Muni salaries and other drivers’ salaries are mere cents, despite being the second-highest salaries in the nation. One thing that Andreas says could in fact be changed to improve efficiency is the element of seniority in the Muni pay scale. “The longer you’ve been with the union, the better choices you get,” said driver Philip Aragon, who has been with the agency since last June. The agency’s current rules are such that some drivers who work only 3.5 hours can get a full day’s pay. “It’s not fair to the majority of drivers. It’s wasting the riders’ money,” Andreas said.

If it makes the ballot, Elsbernd’s proposal would run alongside Campos’ measure. Currently, the mayor appoints all seven board members. Under Campos’ amendment, the mayor would appoint three members, the Board of Supervisors would appoint three and one appointee would be jointly decided by the board president and mayor.

Unlike Elsbernd’s measure, Campos only needs the approval of the Board of Supervisors to get his measure onto the ballot.

The two measures are not mutually exclusive and can both pass if they both make it to the November ballot. If that happens, the city attorney will decide which attributes of each measure will prevail, as determined by the number of votes for each measure.

Elsbernd is confident his measure will pass, but “if lightening strikes and it doesn't pass," he said, "I will keep trying."

CORRECTION 7/19: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the role of the Bay Area Transportation Advisory Committee in concessions voted on by the drivers. The concessions that were brought before the union were from the city.
A version of this article was published in the summer 2010 pilot edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.