Fix Muni Now Prop. G Will Lead to Fewer Pee Breaks, Driver's Union Claims

The charter amendment backed by San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd to end the guarantee that Muni drivers earn the second-highest wages in the nation could have some pretty far-reaching repercussions.

For one, said Irwin Lum, president of Transportation Workers Union Local 250-A,
Expect to see more warnings like this.
drivers may end up with bladder problems.

"As things are now, on the line ending at 48th and Judah, you have one and a half hours without going to the restroom," said Lum, during a two-hour interview over iced tea Tuesday. "We struggle to even take a break. There's no time to eat lunch. There's no such thing as break time. If the city and management can negotiate to make conditions worse, it will be a safety issue. It's a hazard. You'll see people speeding."

Since  Elsbernd got Prop G on the ballot this summer, Lum has struggled to find an opposition message.

During our meeting Tuesday, he explained the bladder theory this way: Bus drivers don't get enough bathroom breaks now, even though they enter contract negotiations with a massive head start thanks to the salary guarantee. If the guarantee disappears, union bosses' will step up to the negotiating table with a handicap. They might have to make concessions on work rules. And those concessions could involve giving up breaks.

....Or like this.
"These are work rule issues we are negotiating all the time" Lum said. "We fight for break time. But management might want to put fewer buses out on the street to cut costs. As that comes up in future negotiations, it will be a sticking point. That's an example of what we see as a problem. There are only 15 local stops with restrooms. At the end of the line, a merchant might let you use the restroom, or you can work out a deal where you pay the merchant per month. But finding restrooms in the middle of the night is dangerous."

It can also provide a spectacle for Muni patrons. A number of drivers were in May reprimanded by Muni for pissing in the street within view of riders.

Elsbernd has argued that the city arrives at the negotiating table with virtually zero leverage, because pay levels are already predetermined. So it becomes difficult for Muni management to require work rules that might reduce employee tardiness, absenteeism, or overtime.

Proposition G allows the city to set Muni workers' wages through collective bargaining, without the current pay guarantee. In the event of an impasse, the two parties would enter arbitration. This way, Elsbernd has argued, Muni workers will be treated the same as other city employees, and the city will be able to run the transit system more efficiently.

Lum, who visited SF Weekly's offices Tuesday with a labor consultant, and union vice president Rafael Cabrera, said the pay guarantee isn't the issue of greatest concern to his members. Rather, Muni workes are worried about Prop G language describing how arbitration would work.

According to the proposition's text, the arbitrator:
"...shall consider the following additional factors when making a determination in any impasse pro­ceeding involving the Agency: the interests and welfare of transit riders, residents, and other members of the public; the Agency's ability to meet the costs of the decision of the arbitration board without materially reducing service or requiring that the Agency raise fares in a manner inconsistent with Section 8A.108(b); and the Agency's ability to effi­ciently and effectively tailor work hours and schedules for transit sys­tem employees to the public demand for transit service."

According to Lum, phrases such as "welfare of transit riders," or "Agency's ability to meet the cost" could be interpreted to mean that Muni managers could poor-mouth their way into a truly abusive contract, in which workers won't even have a chance to pee.

Problem solved!
"Given the legislation's language, anything that costs money could be interpreted as being off the table," Lum said. "It gives Muni a way out, because they can say they won't be able to afford it."

Lum said that Elsbernd overstates the degree to which Muni operators currently get away with absenteeism.

"That's one of the only ways of getting fired in this business: being rude, or violating attendance policies," Lum said.

Not believing what I'd heard, I said: "Those are the only ways of getting fired?"

Lum rephrased: "The main way drivers fire themselves is through passenger complaints and violating attendance policies."

Helpfully, Cabrera kept a copy of the current collective bargaining agreement, which he said specifies strict attendance policies.

Indeed, under the current agreement if a driver simply fails to show up for work without explanation, he can be suspended for two days. If it happens a second time within eight months, a 10-day suspension can ensue. Three times within eight months can conceivably result in termination. After eight months, however, the driver begins anew.

The current agreement also includes the following peculiar language:

"It is jointly recognized by MUNI and TWU that the most effective approach to the lateness and Absence Without Leave problem is to prevent them from happening. Such an approach can most effectively be introduced by managerial behavior dealing with operators as individuals rather than merely applying formulas of punishment for behavior. The Director of Transportation recognizes that substantial training of managers in managing would benefit the department."

Elsbernd hadn't returned our calls by press time. But it seems fair to assume he wouldn't be upset if labor negotiations focused on big things like wages and work rules -- and not contract language stipulating it's management's fault when workers skip work.

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