Muni sickout: Q&A with transit union president

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TWU Local 250-A (Muni's union) President Eric Williams sits down to talk about the Muni sickout.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

It's fair to say San Francisco is sick of the sickout.

Three days after hundreds of Muni workers called in sick to work, crippling the city's transit system, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a legal action against Muni workers' union to end the pseudo-strike. 

Just as Herrera announced his intentions, the Bay Guardian sat down at the Transit Workers Unit local 250-A for an interview with Eric Williams, president of Muni's worker union. 

Here are William's answers to our questions. Pick up a copy of next week's paper for a broader story on the Muni sickout and union backlash in San Francisco.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Thanks for sitting down with me. This is obviously a contentious time for Muni workers. But let's hear how this all started: What's the nitty-gritty contract disagreement between the SFMTA and the union?

Eric Williams: We don't have a problem paying our pension, despite what's being said. We would like a fair even swap, just like everyone else had. The police, the fire department, every union in this city got a fair swap to help pay their own pension. Right now they want to offer us a bump to pay our own pension, but once we got our CPA to crunch the numbers, it's all negative.

The city wants you to beleive it's cost-neutral, but that's not the case. Our members will be making $1.10 less an hour due to this negotiation. 

SFBG So you've said before that certain laws and codes have "stacked the deck" in negotiations against the union, in favor of the SFMTA. How does that work?

EW You have to read Prop G [regarding Muni operators' salaries] and code A8.409 [prohibiting strikes] and say "is this fair?" 

We're struggling, we're coming into a negoatiaion with our hands tied behind our back. The beauracracy and the spinning of the words and statements is alive in the agency. 

It's unfortunate the public thinks it's the common workers' fault on any of these issues. Our members have to take care of our families, our children, paying for college, just like you. 

[Proponents of Prop. G said] "Well, it will make everything fair." Actually, it's not.

A ten-minute video interview with TWU Local 255-A President Eric Williams, as he explains the motivations behind the sickout.

SFBG Let's get into that a bit more. So you walk into a negotiation, you bring a proposal. The way most union negotiations work is two parties sit down and present proposals, but the Muni worker/SFMTA negotiation is unique. You have to prove something to the arbitrator. What do you have to prove?

EW Basically, we have to show we're not going to be costly to the agency. But inflation is going up, how could we not be costly?

 We just want restrooms, but those are costly. We want raises, those are costly. We want better parking, that's costly.

The arbitrator must side with the city if they feel the cost burden will be too high on the city. All SFMTA employees are under the same deal. I've been at four tables in the past few months and negotiated two contracts with parties other than the SFMTA. We had to go to mediation, those mediators told us to talk it over again (offering compromise). You take this proposal, you take this one. That's not the case with the SFMTA negotiations.

SFBG Can Muni workers afford to live in San Francisco?

EW Definitely not. The only members that live inside the city are those who purchased a home 20 or so years ago. The majority of our members live outside the city. That's what leads to the issue of transportation and parking. If you're pulling a bus run at 5:30 in the morning, guess what, there's no bus at 4am to get them there. They need parking. It's poor or rich in this city, there's no in between. That's no secret.

SFBG How far back would you have to go to say a good strong bloc of members lived in the city?

EW At least 20-30 years. Early '90s, '80s. 

SFBG Let's talk about the atmosphere with riders out there. We recently saw a BART strike, did you take a read on the reaction? The sickout, which seems similar ... people seem to not be siding with the union on this. There's a lot of animosity.

EW We thought people understood who were in charge of the economics. It's unfortunate the public may believe it's the common workers' fault on the issues. 

If you look at the bargaining with BART, yes it caused frustration. Yes it did. But when you see them empathizing with the power, "yes we know this hurts, but we have a family too." The only thing we can do is ring the bell and say "this is unfair."

SFBG Do you feel there is a backlash against Muni workers for the sickout?

EW Honestly i couldn't tell the difference, we've been drug over the coals for so long. The frustration you've seen the past few days, not brought by the union itself, but by the members, is real. 

But in reality our members encounter something different with the everyday riders. The mothers, the fathers, [they have] a different attitude. Of course we have that 10, 20 percent that no matter what we do, who say we're wrong. But we have to take a stand as well. We're important here. We take our jobs seriously, and we should be treated as such. 

[Those who disagree with us] need to challenge the agency on everything the agency tells them. The system is still not on time, you still don't have enough employees to drive the buses on the ground. The SFMTA spends all this money but we're not on time, we don't have enough people. 

Those 10-20 percent [who disagree with the workers] need to read the charter. Any person with common sense, any person with a heart, ask themselves if that process is fair. 

SFBG You don't think part of it is the view that Muni workers make much more than private sector workers?

EW There've always been good private sector employers out there. But unions got us weekends, unions got us better working hours, unions got you sick leave. But go out and ask how they feel, what they think the public's issue with us because we're making $60,000 a year, and you went to college for four years. Maybe it's because we're making a living, and you're struggling. Well hey, come get a job as a bus driver if it's that bad out there.

 

Comments

Sounds like a good time for a class action RICO suit against the TWU.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

pension contributions. So they are still not really contributing.

How can they whine about supporting their own retirement funding? Insanity.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

That is not what he said. Is it whining to ask that their pension contribution not eat into the salary that they are currently making?

Posted by guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 10:57 am

their pensions themselves rather than have us do it for them, then the answer is YES!!!

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:18 am

As bad as things may have been this week, it would have been much worse if they were allowed to go out on strike. We should ban strikes by all public service workers. Period. Are you listening, BART?

Posted by Richmondman on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 3:42 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

@Joe,

I've read this "will be making $1.10 less an hour due to this negotiation. " claim before. Unfortunately, nobody (including other media outlets) has questioned the statement, or otherwise relayed the assumptions and numbers.

Could you please get Mr. Williams to provide the reasoning behind this.

My understanding is that they get an 11% raise, over two years. Of that, 7% will go toward their pension (probably immediately), to essentially cover what the city is paying now. So, is the other 4% + $1.10 being discounted due to inflation?

Also, I've read that they're supposed to get paid an average of the two highest-paid cities. But you publish his claim that they'd be getting paid less than a number of cities. So that doesn't make much sense, either.

Posted by James on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

out-dated. Higher pay can only derive from higher productivity, efficiency and revenues. If Muni's performance has not improved, and I see no evidence that it has, then no raise is entitled.

What a Muni worker needs or wants or thinks he needs or wants isn't the issue here. The issue is what does he deserve based on performance.

In the private sector, when performance is bad, wages get frozen, bonuses and OT get cut, and you may even be furloughed.

We need to lose the entitlement here. If all they get just covers their pension contributions, that's still good for them, because those pension contributions are just deferred compensation.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

I mostly agree with that. I have a tendency to focus on the details, though, and the "our real wages are going down" argument seems a bit suspect, and I've seen it repeated and reported, but never detailed or questioned.

With that being said, I do quibble with a few details (see):

* There are plenty of reasons -- some of them are even valid -- that higher pay doesn't require higher productivity. Inflation is an obvious one. But so is seniority. I think VERY FEW private sector jobs relate productivity and compensation so directly and objectively. (Corollary is that many jobs (public and private) don't increase pay if/when productivity increases, and certainly not in direct proportion.)

Similarly, there is an aspect of supply and demand to labor.

* While I agree that nobody is entitled to (real) raises, I also feel that (real) decreases aren't fair, either. I think wages should at least keep up with inflation -- but that's the bleeding heart liberal in me...

(Speaking of pension contributions, I've wondered if those numbers are getting fudged: "We only get paid $x? Oh? The 7% contribution? That doesn't count.")

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Posted by reverse phone lookup on Jul. 09, 2014 @ 3:44 am

Index wages to a drop in workmans comp claims and costs for example.

The cities unions look at the city as a jobs program and the citizens as an ATM.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

they make more money only if Muni hits key operational and economic metrics.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

Why does that require privatization? Put it in the contract.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 8:35 am

of the public-sector "job for life" mentality that is crippling Muni.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 8:59 am

Hopefully fresh blood at the TWU will revive the union from its zombie state.

The MTA has proven to San Franciscans that it has more of a management problem than a labor problem. That is why we are not jumping on board with the TEP financing measures. Until the governance at the MTA is opened up such that more voices are at the table, this will only spiral further. Neoliberals are intent on running public services into the ground so that they can be privatized and this is part of that strategy.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

not want to pay for them.

Especially since, as in the case of Muni, their disease is seen as terminal and throwing money at it makes no more sense than throwing money the homeless.

Either way, it's a bottomless pit.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

People are willing to pay for better services but they're gun-shy after watching the promises that were made to get the money go up in smoke. If I knew that the money would be spent properly on upgrades and improved service, I'd vote for giving Muni more money. But history has shown us that the money will be diverted to higher management salaries, more bureaucracy, and higher driver salaries with no improvement in service. Has anything changed in the past 20 years to give us any reason to believe that if we gave Muni more money, service would in any way be improved?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

Yes, we need to throw significant money at actually providing the capital infrastructure to provide the kind of transit that San Franciscans want and are willing to pay for.

But there is ample evidence that every dollar thrown at the MTA to provide transit is spent by management in ways that result in less than one dollars' transit service out the back end.

When I was on the MTA CAC, I warned the MTA management that they needed to make up with San Franciscans to build the basis of trust upon which future investment could be predicated.

But they balked, kept on picking fights with constituency after constituency of San Franciscans on behalf of a very narrow segment of the "livability" coalition to the extent that they cannot win at the ballot box.

Now the entirety of the Eastern Neighborhoods has been upzoned and that upzoning has been predicated upon transit investment that will not materialize. Within .25 mi of our home, close to 500 parking spaces have been added or are in the pipeline. This will only further snarl surface transit in the transit rich neighborhood with no mitigation in sight.

This needs to be an issue in the D8 race, where Scott Wiener pretends to support funding for the MTA but enables the corrupt, extractive Lee regime to continue to bleed the agency dry so that they can shunt those resources to politically favored destinations.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 6:02 am

The Central Subway is absorbing billions.

Those 500 parking spaces are attached to new homes which will not sell without a parking space. That same Eastern neighborhood rejected the removal of free street parking.

You don't get good Muni by attacking drivers. You build a better Muni, to the extent that the voters wish to fund it, and then people will drive less.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 8:36 am

Are you kidding? Homes without parking spaces in the Mission are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking price, often with 10-15 offers. Parking spaces generally cost as much or more to construct than they add in home value these days.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

secured off-street parking space. This is doubly so in higher crime areas - because sites are hard to get they are sometimes next to projects or in other less desirable spots and millionaires want to get in and out of their homes without having to take risks.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

Point being, these upzonings were justified as being transit oriented development and the autos they're housing are snarling Muni worse than ever.

Downzone these back to 45' and you can have your 1:1 parking.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 07, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

that it will always be possible or convenient to get where you are going by bus.

Most SF'ers want a car and there is little point in building homes that do not give people what they want.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 5:01 am

I agree that TOD is a pack of lies. But the political deal floated by SPUR and Planning for Eastern Neighborhoods and Market Octavia was that since there is transit infrastructure in place, we upzone along those transit lines under the theory that new residents would take that transit, and we only allow few parking spaces to not delay that transit and encourage transit use. Had there been no transit, there would not have been such upzonings.

That is rationale in the legislative legal record of how these upzonings were entitled and justified. That justification has proven a lie, more parking is saturating the neighborhood with more cars, transit investment is not forthcoming because the same corrupt liars who promised TOD would work are likewise sucking the MTA dry and voters are rightly balking at approving needed capital financing.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 7:04 am

But in the end, if people want homes with parking, then that is what we must build for them. The consumer ultimately drives such design decisions.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 8:51 am

The existence of inanimate objects argues nothing. Individuals with agendas make political arguments designed to sway public opinion and pry entitlements out of decision makers.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 9:50 am

I was stating the obvious fact that we should only build homes that people want and are willing to pay for. If building such homes without parking means that they don't sell or rent, then what would be the point?

It's a commercial decision, ultimately. We build parking spaces because people want them.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 10:04 am

The decision was a political decision, not a bureaucratic decision.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 5:20 am

But in any case, you missed my point. I was explaining to you why new developments have all those parking spaces, regardless of how many some non-drivers think there should be.

We have parking spaces because people want them, and that is the ultimate in peoples' democracy.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 7:15 am

But the distinction is key because the up zoning was predicated upon fewer parking spaces yet developers are given a pass on those restrictions. Heads developers win, tails San Franciscans lose.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 7:42 am

rightly overlook the small print and instead give the people what they want.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 9:24 am

But the people who live near that don't want it.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 10:01 am

AKA the NIMBY's?

Anyway, I haven't seen a poll showing that a majority of SF voters wanting no new homes with parking.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 10:25 am

The majority of San Franciscans want a transit system that works and don't want new parking in their back yards.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 10:51 am

Much of that new parking is off-street and hidden from view, so it doesn't affect most people at all.

As for better transit, sure people will say theyw ant that just like they say theyw ant world peace. But that doesn't mean they are willing to give up their cars and parking while we wait for it.

Deliver it first and then we will talk about easing back on parking. Meanwhile you don't get to tell your neighbors that they cannot park at their home.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 11:13 am

More cars means more traffic, slower transit and more pedestrian and bicycle injuries and deaths. That effects many more people than benefit from off-street parking.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

give up cars in a city with crap transit just because a few extremists make an unsubstantiated claim that people are harmed thereby.

Sounds like you are one of those StreetsBlog extemists.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

Time for the union to back a ballot proposition mandating the voters elect the SFMTA board.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

political ehlp the average commuter?

What we need is people who know how to run a transportation business and not a bunch of folks migrating from the SFUSD board with political aspirations.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 9:02 am

Because the board hand picked by Lee, a spineless, inconsistent mayor who is unwilling to stand up for MTA and advocate strongly for good public transit, supports every harebrained idea he comes up with (like repealing Sunday meter enforcement).

Posted by guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:01 am

So it's unreasonable to criticize them for not being biased.

Again, i want transit experts on that board, and not political figures with an ideological agenda.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:20 am

The MTA's budget is almost exclusively dedicated to public transit, not private transportation.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:37 am

maintenance of the roads, streets, bridges and tunnels.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:50 am

No it is not because the City does not maintain the roads, streets, bridges and tunnels. The annual budget of the MTA dwarfs that of the DPW, bond proceeds included.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

spend we should look thru and past artificial bureaucratic boundaries.

Vehicular transportation still dominates and so inevitably the funding must follow that, especially since most transit in SF uses regular SF roads anyway.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

Should, could, would, don't. Next.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 1:51 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

Dear Mayor Ed Lee and SF Board of Supervisors,

You have made the ENTIRE city dependent on a public transit system that that DOESN'T WORK! Let me repeat that for the hundreds of thousands of people who waited for buses and trains that NEVER CAME THIS WEEK! San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, The Board of Supervisors, and the SFMTA have made the ENTIRE city dependent on a public transit system that that DOESN'T WORK!

How many times have you all used "transit first" as an excuse to disrupt our lives and empty our wallets? Will all of the money you are collecting the LEAST YOU COULD DO is to keep our transit system running.

Exactly how much money does the city need?

1. City Hall is already bringing in $247,349,190 A YEAR from parking tickets, traffic tickets, red light cameras, gas taxes, vehicle license fees, parking meters, and the many city-owned parking lots.

2. Add $84 million a year in sales taxes that the SFCTA rakes in to maintain city streets.

3. In 2003 Proposition K generated roughly 2.5 BILLION "20 programs such as street resurfacing, signs and signals, traffic calming, and transit enhancements.

4. IN 2007 - Proposition A, another ballot measure generated ANOTHER $31 million in revenue. We later found out that $134,536 paid a plumber. $91,478 paid a gardener. Five custodians were paind $397,764 A secretary $93,155. Six general laborers took at total of $533,100.

5. In 2011 Proposition B the Road Repaving &Street Safety Bond generated another $248 million for Pedestrian, bicycle, & transit projects

And now now the city comes CRAWLING BACK TO TAXPAYERS in hopes of passing ANOTHER $1.5 billion in taxes fees and bonds?

MUNI doesn’t have a money problem. SFMTA has a spending problem. They also live in a time warp. They are planning for 2030 and we are living in 2014. When things are mess now, why should we trust them to fix the future?

In November we can vote against City Hall's latest money grab or we can vote to restoring some balance to the city's transportation system http://www.restorebalance14.org/initiative.html

Posted by sfparkripoff on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 9:10 am

Things are a mess now, but let's not try to fix them if fixing them means I can't store my private property on public streets. . It must suck to get old and watch the world change, and values change, without you.

Posted by guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:04 am

just to travel along them, but also that they are able to stop ar their destination.

We vote to fund streets not just for the moving lanes, but for the parking lanes as well.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 06, 2014 @ 11:22 am

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