Winners and Losers in This Week’s Muni “Sick-out”

This week Muni’s owner/riders had the distinct displeasure of enduring a “sick out” by Muni operators on Monday & Tuesday. Operators cannot strike by law, but there’s no law against “everyone” calling in “sick” at once*. This avoids going to jail for an illegal strike, but causes all the uncertainty of a strike on Muni owner/riders. To put it mildly – it sucks.
You can read Joe Eskenazi’s assessment as to why the sickout was called on by Muni operators – a contract that was voted down on Friday that members did not like. Under the rules of Proposition G, if a contract is voted down, management and the union go to arbitration.
Thus, there was already a mechanism to resolve differences, and the “sick out” was not necessary. Despite this, the membership of Local 250-A – TWU thought that a “sick out” would be a great idea and somehow get public opinion on their side.
To whom I would simply ask “How’s that working out for you?”
So, let’s go through who the Winners and Losers are in this (hopefully) 2-day “sick out”:
1. Muni Operators Union, TWU Local 250-A: I have no idea who’s in charge at this union, and it seems more and more like the membership and the leadership are from different planets, since the membership overwhelmingly voted down this contract AND came up with the brilliant idea to have virtual strike (ok “Sick Out”) on a Monday. I’m sure this appealed to some who get off on the idea of a “militant” labor movement, but the sad fact is that it has blown up in their faces.
While $37/hour sounds like a lot of money, try living on that in the City, or the greater Bay Area, with a family. That “big wage” suddenly isn’t a lot of money anymore, and if you make less than that and still manage to pay rent in town, I don’t know how you do it. That said, whatever legitimate grievances they had were eclipsed by the “screw you” tone of this “action.”
Few people know, or care about the intricacies of the “labor movement”, because most people don’t work for a government agency. They instead work in the private sector, which has an extremely low number of union workers, even in Allegedly Liberal San Francisco.
As such most owner/riders don’t have a lot of sympathy for the operators (who have “pensions” and “pay raises,” things alien to the private sector), especially when they are late to work or school because the buses aren’t running. They instead see a group of people getting something they are told they can’t have at their own job. Those who ride a shuttle bus to the suburbs have no dog in this fight, so they don’t care one way or another.
If the goal was to unite “the workers” with “the people,” they failed.
If the goal was to “stick it” to management, well yes, they did make some people’s lives miserable for a few days, but no one is getting fired as as result of the action.
The SFMTA Board will still be in charge, regardless of how well they are doing. The Mayor and the Board of Supervisors (who appoint the SFMTA board) will perpetuate a failed status quo, and will feel no pain at the polls later on. Once again, the “sick out” FAILED.
2. The SFMTA: If the agency’s leadership wanted to pile on another stinker on the backs of Muni owner/riders, well all I can say is “well played” People such as myself who actually pay attention to these matters knew that this next contract would be a difficult sell to operators, based partially on past negotiations where operators did have give up raises and other assorted benefits to help the agency in troubled times.
You simply cannot ask a group of workers to take a hit over and over, all the while bragging about increased revenues and ridership and having a very well paid management & middle management. Now, the budget of the agency is not as simple as most people seem to think, but it’s not like the SFMTA didn’t see this coming in one form or another.
We kept being told that Proposition G was supposed to fix some of these labor issues, but for some reason, once again we vote on something, and yet somehow it “doesn’t work out.” I’m sure there’s many “excuses” management can come up with, but they are very very well paid to solve these problems for us, the owner/riders. Besides, when you’re sitting outside waiting for a 44 O’Shaughnessy that’s not arriving, all the excuses in the world don’t mean a hill of beans to you.
Combined with so many articles about Muni mismanagement in the SF Weekly, and an overall distrust of the agency, I’m sure people will be voting in droves to approve new debt and new taxes for the SFMTA. In other words, another FAILURE to add to the “Loser” column.
3. Muni’s Owner/Riders: People in San Francisco live in the first city in America to own its own public transit system. The idea was to create something that would serve the entire public – not just some shareholders elsewhere – and that said agency would be obligated to serve the public first. Clearly that’s not the case right now, and there’s a myriad of reasons as to why, but you can read 9 years of archived posts on this blog to explain that.
That said Muni’s owner/riders were losers two ways:
First, anyone who had ANYTHING to do that required taking Muni (work, school, errands, doctor’s appointments, etc) were stuck with long waits and crowded rides. Not everyone reads The Internet all the time, so much of the owner/ridership was caught off guard by the “sick out” and the ensuing problems said action caused. Now, I’m lucky in that I’m self employed so I could re-arrange my schedule – most people aren’t so lucky. In fact, being late to work can be a fireable offense. So as I stated before, if the operators were looking for some “solidarity” with the “people,” they failed, and it was the owner/riders who paid the price.
Second, Muni’s owner/riders were losers in the sense that over and over again, as those who really should be stewards of their own public transit system, owner/riders consistently rewarded the politicians and the SFMTA management for poor performance. The sad fact is until people start losing their jobs because Muni is failing, it will continue to fail.
Case in point: in the 2012 elections we had several candidates for Supervisor who ran on detailed, articulate plans to advocate for better transportation in San Francisco. They lost to well funded incumbents (and other candidates) who ran on empty “feel good” platitudes. Trust me, City Hall got the message.
So long as owner/riders allow a loud minority of NIMBYs and Know Nothings to dominate meetings, blocking needed improvements, it will continue to fail.
So long as you, the owner/rider, are willing to complain on the stupid Internet, but aren’t willing to vote for people who are actually willing and competent enough to make specific changes to improve the transportation system in San Francisco, it will continue to fail.
This sounds harsh, but it’s the sad truth. Owner/Riders deserve and expect a transit system that is worthy of an expensive city, but they are also obligate to ensure that happens. Sitting on your ass and complaining won’t cut it.
Oh wait! I forgot!
WINNERS: No one.
Some Final Deep Thoughts:

Part of the reason I haven’t been updating in a while is that frankly, I’m tired of writing about failure, both with the SFMTA and the City of San Francisco. When I started writing this in 2005 (!) it was fun and interesting.
However, as I’ve often said before, one can tell a lot about how San Francisco truly operates when viewing through the “lens” of public transportation over the last 100 years. Such a view isn’t very pretty most of the time.
Nowhere is perfect, to be sure, but it says a lot when cities in the Third World can build better systems faster, and over a larger area than a super-wealthy city of 49 square miles. Likewise, when Los Angeles can move people around on trains and buses in ways we can only dream of should put us all to shame. This city is full of Good People of all ages, etc. who are smart and want something better. So what’s holding us back?
It doesn’t have to be this way, but blogs and know-nothing Twitter comments won’t change much. Until there’s a consensus that we can and should do better, San Francisco will continue to wallow in mediocrity, something which seems ok to most people.
Your move, SF.
*Fun Factoid: Any operator who doesn’t have a legitimate note from an Actual Doctor or Health Care Provider won’t get paid.
UPDATE: BIG high five to the San Francisco Transit Rider’s union for this post calling out the “Mayor” on his lack of support for transit. Good job, gang.

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