An open letter to the Transit Workers Union

Pub date February 23, 2010


By Gabriel Metcalf

OPINION Last week, the Transit Workers Union refused to accept a deal with San Francisco that would have modestly reduced major service cuts and eliminated another increase in discount fares at least for this year. The proposal would have involved two things: first, a one-time contribution by drivers to their own pension plans (worth $8.9 million for next year, almost precisely cancelled by the automatic raise of $8 million the drivers will receive next year); and second, a change in work rules that would have required drivers to actually work 40 hours in a week before earning overtime, which would have saved $3.8 million over the next 14 months.

Muni is facing a deficit of at least $17 million in the current fiscal year and around $55 million next year. Future years will be worse. Given these pressures, the TWU is getting ready to re-vote. I presume that, eventually, union members will accept the deal. But either way, given how utterly marginal this deal is for the riders, progressives need to begin a public conversation about what responsibility the union has for making Muni work better.

The problem is not that TWU salaries are too high. The problem is the work rules. These include: drivers not having to let their managers know how long they will be absent from work, making it impossible to set schedules; drivers earning overtime pay before actually working 40 hours a week; and perhaps most significantly, a set of rules that makes it virtually impossible to hire part time drivers. Currently, Muni is forced by the work rules to pay drivers at full hourly rates to sit around between the morning and afternoon peaks. That rule costs MTA about $11 million each year.

If the TWU is willing to give on just the overtime and part-time driver rules, MTA would save $12.4 million in next year’s budget — and this savings would grow in the future. Other work rule changes could save much, much more, while dramatically increasing service to riders.

Probably the underlying cause of Muni’s work rules is the fact that the TWU, unlike other bargaining units in the city, has its salary and benefits set by formula in the City Charter — which means that management has nothing to offer during labor negotiations. Friends of mine in the labor movement argue that TWU is just doing its job in trying to get a good deal for members. I would argue that TWU needs to do more than that, and needs to begin taking responsibility for building a transit system that works well and can grow over time.

Maybe this public sector union needs to take a page from the Swedish labor movement.

Early into the post World War II economic boom, the Swedish unions learned that, since they controlled the government and increasingly controlled the boards of directors of the corporations they had organized, they were essentially always going to get their major demands met. This forced a big shift in their culture, causing them to have to take responsibility not just for cutting a good deal for their members, but for ensuring the profitability of the companies. Labor could easily “win too much” and drive the companies out of business, thereby returning its members to unemployment. Once labor controlled the businesses, it had to come up with a proactive agenda for how to run them successfully.

Closer to home, we’ve seen the teachers union accept cuts and changes to their equivalent of work rules in order to prevent teacher layoffs. And we’ve seen the Service Employees International Union at the national level put immense resources into passing health care reform — something that will benefit all Americans, not just SEIU members.

Something similar needs to happen now at Muni.

Muni workers deserve a good wage. It’s a hard job under the best of circumstances. And as Muni tries to keep service on the streets without enough money for equipment and maintenance, workers on the front lines will bear the brunt of the bigger problems. But a lot of people resent the things the union has chosen to ask for in addition to a good wage.

Muni’s troubles are multifaceted. They involve bad management, bad street design, bad land use planning, and certainly insufficient funding. But work rules are undeniably part of the issue as well. It cannot be progressive for the TWU, in the middle of the worst financial crisis to hit our country since the Great Depression, to cling to the same work rules it has had in the past. Muni needs TWU to help it be successful.

Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).