Muni union takes on legality of San Francisco's Prop. G 

Seeking to derail the voter initiative that gave Muni more leverage in contract negotiations with operators, a union has jeopardized $2 billion in federal funding for projects including bus and light-rail replacement and the Central Subway.

By targeting the funding, the union hopes to force Muni to seek the repeal of Proposition G, thus strengthening the hand of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A in ongoing bargaining talks.

Lawyers for the union, which represents roughly 2,000 Muni operators, complained Monday to the U.S. Department of Labor that the initiative violates a Federal Transit Act guarantee of fair bargaining rights for employees.

Union spokesman Jamie Horwitz said labor officials could bar the agency from receiving transit funds until it complies with federal labor standards. That would halt $2 billion in funds committed for capital projects such as the Central Subway, cable car improvements, and the construction of new vehicle facilities.

Since most of the money for large projects such as the subway comes from the federal government, the loss of such funds would delay or even derail Muni’s plans.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, could not confirm the assertion that $2 billion is at risk. The agency already faces a $2.2 billion shortfall in its capital budget.

Spokesman Rich Peterson said SFMTA is conferring with the City Attorney’s Office.

Jack Song, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said that agency needs to review the case before it could comment.

Union lawyer Beth Ross said if federal funding were withheld, Muni could sue to have it reinstated. But if that were unsuccessful, the only way for Muni to get back its funding would be for voters to repeal Prop. G, which passed in November with a 65 percent majority.

SFMTA management and the union are currently involved in the first negotiations since the passage of Prop. G. The union’s argument to federal labor officials is that the arbitration process required by Prop. G is illegal.

“Prop. G is grossly unfair and a violation of federal law,” Local 250-A President Rafael Cabrera said in a statement.

“Management thinks it can hide behind Prop. G to force work rules on us that will threaten our own safety and the safety of our passengers.”

However, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who helped write Prop. G, said he was confident in the initiative’s legality.

SFMTA Chairman Tom Nolan said he suspects the union’s gambit is a tactic to improve its hand at the bargaining table. But Nolan said Prop. G was the will of the people, and that the union should just come to terms with the agency.

For decades, the SFMTA’s contract with its transit operators was enshrined in the city charter and immune to collective bargaining. Prop. G was created to give management more leverage in bargaining its work rules with the operators. The SFMTA, which is facing a $22 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, said it can achieve $26 million in labor savings due to the measure’s passage.


Atlanta case may set a precedent

Union officials base their case against Proposition G on a 1985 case involving Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. That agency’s attempt to change bargaining rules for its transit operators was rejected by the Department of Labor, resulting in the loss of federal dollars.

The union said the 1985 case barred the Atlanta agency from receiving federal transit dollars after the Georgia Legislature enacted a statute impairing the collective bargaining and arbitration rights of transit workers.

Even if management and the union agree to bargaining terms, the federal government could still disagree with Proposition G’s labor rules and withhold funding, union spokesman Jamie Horwitz said.

“Because Proposition G was the result of an initiative process, there is lot we don’t know,” Horwitz said. “But when the MTA agreed to take federal funding, they in turn agreed to federal labor rules.”


Projects paid for by federal funding

  • Central Subway construction
  • Muni Metro East Facility construction
  • Islais Creek motor coach maintenance facility
  • Light-rail and motor coach vehicle replacement
  • Cable Car infrastructure upgrades

Source: Transport Workers Union, SFMTA

Fare share

How Muni’s financial situation sizes up:

$2 billion: Federal funding for Muni that would be halted if union’s charge is upheld

$22.3 million: Projected Muni budget deficit for upcoming fiscal year

$26 million: Savings identified by the SFMTA through labor negotiations

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Will Reisman

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