The pummeling of SF Labor

Pub date October 1, 2010
WriterDick Meister
SectionBruce Blog

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With five supervisorial seats open and only one incumbent running, the Labor Council has had a tough time picking the right pro-labor candidates. The easy choices were incumbent Carmen Chu in District 4, with no opposition, and Raphael Mandelman, an exceptionally promising newcomer in District 8. But Janet Reilly in District 2 opposes the Labor Council’s revenue measures. In District 6, where long-time activist Deborah Walker has been endorsed, and in District 8, where Malia Cohen and Chris Jackson are #1 and #2, there are a multitude of candidates, many of them labor friendly.

It’s not an easy year.

Prop. B on San Francisco’s November election ballot confronts the city’s working people and their unions with an unprecedented challenge. The measure, sponsored by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, would severely weaken public employee unions and undoubtedly lead to other serious attacks on workers and unions in private as well as public employment nationwide.

The proposition is by no means the only dangerously anti-labor measure on the ballot, but it ‘s the worst from labor’s point of view, as it very well should be. It’s a prime example of the public-employee bashing that’s become a favorite theme in election campaigns everywhere and, if passed, would set a clear national precedent.

Actually, Prop. B might better be described as a pummeling rather than bashing – and one coming, furthermore, just a few months after city employees took a voluntary $250 million pay cut. Prop. B would steeply raise the employees’ contributions to their pensions unilaterally and prohibit bargaining on the issue in the future as well.

It would arbitrarily lower city contributions to the employees’ health plans, especially dependent care. What employees pay for health care coverage for children and other dependents would be as much as doubled.

The steep rise in the employees’ share of their health care coverage could quite possibly force families to drop city coverage and try to get cheaper coverage on their own. That, of course, is a primary goal of the corporate anti-labor forces and others who seek to balance the budgets of public entities on the backs of their employees.

So what if workers can’t afford to take the kids to the doctor.  Cutting taxes and balancing budgets is a lot more important. Besides, there’s always the emergency room and charity.

But wait! There are yet more major Prop. B flaws. For example: If city health care coverage is changed by increasing the premiums paid by employees, as the proposition requires, the city Health Service system (HSS) would have to forfeit new $23 million-a-year federal grants intended to reduce premiums for employees and retirees covered by the HSS. The system includes, not just city employees, but also school and community college district and SF court system employees and retirees.

There’s even more, much more than enough to energize labor’s troops. They are angry. Very angry. Unions citywide have at least temporarily set aside their sometimes considerable differences and feuding over tactics, jurisdictions and other matters. They’ve come together tightly along with a substantial number of labor’s Democratic Party allies to oppose Prop. B.

And watch out for Prop. G. It’s another favorite of the anti-union, anti-public employee crowd, led in this case by Sean Elsbernd, a very politically ambitious member of the SF Board of Supervisors.

Elsbernd and friends claim their intent is to “fix the Muni,” one of the nation’s most complex transit systems. The Municipal Railway, overseen by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), is indeed badly in need of fixing. But the principal blame for that does not rest with Muni’s bus and streetcar operators – most of them people of color – as proponents of Prop. G claim. Most of the blame rests with Muni’s overpaid managers, headed by $336,000-a-year executive director and CEO Nathaniel Ford.

As President Irwin Lum of the Muni operator’s union said in a Guardian interview,  “Muni needs to be changed from the top to the bottom.” He sees Muni’s problem as mainly a lack of resources and the political will to pursue them.  Muni officials might also avoid lots of problems if they’d deign to consult regularly with community groups and their leaders on their transit needs.

The public rightly complains of buses not arriving on time, of being passed up while waiting at bus stops, of grumpy drivers and of other certainly legitimate matters.  Naturally, they blame the drivers. But drivers do not make schedules. Under pressure to keep to the schedules made by others, they sometimes speed by waiting passengers. Sometimes they’re slowed by heavy traffic, sometimes by problems with faulty, broken-down down buses or slowed by having to deal with violent passengers. Sometimes, managers making out the schedules don’t properly anticipate such probable delays.

Oh, yes, those grumpy drivers.

Wouldn’t you be grumpy if you had to work a full shift without going to the bathroom? If you had to listen to loud complaints from unruly passengers who sometimes got rough with you and each other?  If you had to weave through heavy traffic for hours at a time? If you had to time your work to unrealistic schedules you had nothing to do with making?

It’s not the drivers who are in charge of replacing badly worn buses and streetcar tracks and equipment, not the drivers who are in charge of negotiating with Muni suppliers for a reduction in ever-escalating fuel prices and other costs. In short, it’s not the drivers who run Muni – though Muni, of course, could not run without them.

So, what do Elsbernd and his anti-labor cohorts want to do to the Muni’s invaluable workers? Here’s the deal:

The City Charter now requires that Muni operators be paid at least as much as the average salary of operators at the two highest paying similar transit systems in the country.  And if benefits granted Muni operators are worth less than those of operators at similar transit systems, the difference is paid to the operators from a trust fund established for that purpose.

Under Prop. G, operators’ pay and benefits would be set by bargaining between union and MTA representatives. If they couldn’t agree, the dispute would be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decision would be binding.

The arbitrator would be required to consider the possible impact of disputed proposals on Muni fares and services. But though all other city unions are also subject to arbitration, there’s no requirement that the arbitrator consider how their proposals would affect the services provided by the union’s members – an unusual requirement that’s virtually unheard of elsewhere.

Prop. G backers presumably see the proposition as a step toward their goal of being able to set, change or eliminate Muni work rules without bothering to consult workers or their unions. They are, you might say, “unilateralists.”

 Taking on Muni operators is only part of Supervisor Elsbernd’s anti-labor romp. He’s also sponsoring Prop.  F, a deceptively simple charter amendment that would seriously impact the 105,000 members of the Health Service System. It’s a stealth proposition, difficult to understand and explain, and thus often brushed aside as a minor ballot measure of no particular consequence.

But Prop. F is capable of doing major long-term damage to HSS members by weakening their position in negotiating with powerful health insurers such as Blue Shield on the size of the premiums HSS members have to pay for coverage and the benefits they receive.

All politicians stretch the truth. It’s part of their game. You needn’t look further than Elsbernd for evidence of that.  He actually claims he put Prop. F on the ballot strictly to save the Health Service System money by eliminating two of the four elections in which HSS members vote for representatives on the HSS Board. This seemingly small change would eliminate the overlapping terms that provide the continuity essential to successful negotiations with health insurers.

The savings would average a mere $30,000 a year, and would not even be available until 2016. Nor is there a guarantee that any of the money would go to the HSS. $30,000? What’s the real motive here?

As for the rest of San Francisco’s ballot measures and candidates, union supporters could hardly do better than to follow the recommendations of the AFL-CIO’s local Labor Council, which almost invariably backs the propositions most likely to be labor-friendly and opposes those that are not. This time, the Labor Council is saying “no” to those decidedly unfriendly Propositions B, G and F.

And don’t forget Props. J, K and N. Hotel workers and others are supporting Prop. J, which is meant to stop the travel industry practice of using online hotel booking to avoid paying SF’s hotel tax. Prop. J also would increase the city’s hotel tax for the first time in 14 years in order to raise some most welcome revenue for the city’s general fund.

However, Prop. K – introduced by Mayor Newsom – could stand in the way. Since Prop. K makes no change in the hotel tax rate, apparently it’s intended to confuse and distract the voters so they won’t approve Prop. J.

The other major revenue measure strongly supported by labor – Proposition N – would increase the city’s transfer tax rate on the sale of property worth more than $5 million from 1.5 percent now to a range of 2 to 2 ½ percent for a property worth $10 million or more. This would also generate millions for the city’s general fund.

Rarely has so much been at stake for San Francisco’s working people and their unions.

Dick Meister, former Labor Editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV, has covered labor and politics for a half-century, Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.