Despite working under a contract that explicitly bars strikes, Muni’s transit operators might vote to authorize one if their ongoing labor negotiations reach an impasse.
This Friday, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents 2,200 drivers and conductors, will begin a weeklong vote that could authorize a strike. If approved, the initiative would let union President Rafael Cabrera call a strike, while not necessarily assuring that one is imminent.
Although the union’s current contract with Muni theoretically bars work stoppages, union Secretary-Treasurer Walter Scott said that provision’s legality is questionable and could be tested.
The City Charter also says worker strikes are not in the public interest. However, Scott said other charter clauses have not been honored by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, including a stipulation that the union receive annual health benefit payments.
The union and SFMTA management are just beginning historic labor negotiations, made possible by voters’ passage of Proposition G, which gives Muni unprecedented leverage to bargain with drivers.
For decades, Muni work rules and pay standards were enshrined in the charter, and thus immune to negotiations. Muni operators also were guaranteed the second-highest hourly wage of any U.S. drivers.
Now the agency thinks it can negotiate $26 million in savings.
SFMTA spokesman Charles Goodyear said the threat of a strike will not affect negotiations. He would not say what disciplinary action Muni would take if the union struck.
Goodyear said Prop. G set up an arbitration system to prevent work stoppages and any strike authorization would be inappropriate. He also called the union’s financial arguments misleading. He said the SFMTA is facing a $22.3 million budget shortfall and that the average operator earns $101,000 in salary and benefits.
Muni is used by about 700,000 riders each day, and a strike would leave those of passengers without alternatives. Scott said the union would consider a strike only if negotiations with management go south.
“Operators are an essential part of this system, and we need to be treated fairly,” he said.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who helped develop Prop. G, said the charter is clear about public employee strikes — they are forbidden. San Francisco’s binding-interest arbitration system prohibits all employees from striking. Elsbernd said the last time any public employees carried out a strike occurred before he was born.
“I really hope they don’t take an illegal act,” he said.
San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, one of the architects of Prop. G, expressed dismay at the notion of a strike.
A change to work rules that would allow for the hiring of part-time drivers, eliminate paid lunchtime and require greater pension contributions are some of the contentious bargaining proposals that could save Muni $26 million annually.
The agency released those proposals last week, and Transport Workers Union Local 250-A was scheduled to respond today, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Charles Goodyear.
Requiring operators to contribute to their pension plans would save the SFMTA, which operates Muni, $9.8 million a year. Hiring part-time workers would free up $7 million, eliminating paid lunchtime would save $3.2 million, reducing premium shift pay would save $2.75 million and axing a longevity provision would save another $1 million.
Overall, the agency has identified $26 million in potential concessions from the union, a total that would more than make up the SFMTA’s $22.3 million projected budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.
The language regarding work stoppages:
From City Charter
- It is hereby declared to be the policy of the City and County of San Francisco that strikes by City employees are not in the public interest and that, in accordance with Government Code Section 3507(e), a method should be adopted for peacefully and equitably resolving disputes.
From Memorandum of Understanding between TWU Local 250-A and SFMTA Management:
- Strikes, slowdowns or work stoppages are prohibited during the term of this MOU. The SFMTA agrees not to conduct a lockout against any of the employees covered by this MOU during the term of this MOU.
Sources: City Charter, SFMTA