If you thought Chicago’s rogue bus union was an isolated incident of transit workers taking a very ill-considered stand against an entire populace of angry riders, you were wrong. The same sorry story is happening right now in San Francisco, where Municipal Railway (Muni) bus and light-rail operators are causing service cutbacks by refusing to give up a yearly wage increase written (incredibly) into the city charter.
By way of background, as every Chicagoan undoubtedly knows, on February 7th, the CTA was forced to lay off 1,000 union workers and cut 10% of ‘L’ service and 20% of bus service. That mini transit-doomsday happened because the CTA’s unions refused to agree to wage, health insurance, and pension concessions that were triggered by staggering shortfalls in operating revenue thanks to the moribund economy.
Instead of blaming state lawmakers in Springfield for Chicago transit woes, this time Chicagoans blamed the union workers, themselves, for having the audacity to demand wage increases at a time when many riders can’t even find jobs. Making matters even uglier, now Jesse Jackson is leading a charge with bus union president Darrell Jefferson to essentially extort the CTA to rehire the laid off workers by threatening work slowdowns and a potential (and illegal) strike if the agency doesn’t restore the lost union jobs.
Obviously bus union workers are getting some really bad advice here. Laying on an outdated diatribe claiming the CTA needed to fire a few expensive management “fatcats” before laying off workers, Jefferson originally told his union that the CTA would blink before pulling the trigger on CTA doomsday. Finance likely isn’t his strong point. The CTA is already pared down to the bone and the sales taxes that largely fund the agency are demonstrably not there anymore. Angering the riding public even further will just stiffen what is already very strong civic resolve to let the bus union in no uncertain terms drop dead. Which it probably would from state fines if the union voted to carry out an illegal strike (as was the financial fate of New York’s transit union following its own illegal strike in 2005.)
As described by San Francisco Chronicle columnist C. W. Nevius, San Francisco transit workers have an amazing deal: an annual eight-percent pay raise that’s written right into the San Francisco city charter. Just like the CTA, Muni has a reputation for unreliability and sub-standard service. As will sound familiar to Chicagoans, thanks to the ongoing recession, the City by the Bay no longer has sufficient revenues coming in to afford to pay out that guaranteed annual raise while still maintaining transit service. And there, too, union leaders are claiming that mythical management bloat needs to be culled at the transit agency before cutbacks or layoffs happen.
Such rhetoric didn’t stop Muni’s board from voting to lay off 230 union workers, cut 10% of service, and raise fares beginning May 1st. Muni riders have been here before. In 2009, they suffered through an initial round of service cuts and fare increases, and as local media report, they’re still livid about it. Knowing that the latest cutbacks are being caused by transit workers refusing to give up guaranteed raises at a time when many Muni riders can’t find work (echo? echo?) has San Francisco’s ridership nearing open rebellion.
Riding the wave of anti-union sentiment, one San Francisco supervisor is launching a campaign to amend the city charter to force Muni workers into collective bargaining. It’s a change that’s likely to happen, and it’s a virtual certainty that when it does, Muni workers won’t end up with a contract as sweet as their current wage deal. The Chronicle‘s Nevius says Muni union head Irwim Lum thinks the union “had no choice” but to refuse to negotiate on any sort of wage giveback.
The frank response from Nevius could have been uttered as equally in Chicago as in San Francisco:
“Actually, you did. You voted it down. This would be a good time to see if you can get that deal again.”
Especially if you’re a Chicago bus driver who thinks striking or slowing down CTA service will win any sympathy from your fellow Chicagoans. You may know us as the people who pay your salary.