Muni operators operate on your wallet

This isn’t exactly a shocker:

Muni operators resoundingly rejected on Tuesday a package of negotiated labor concessions intended to save nearly $15 million in operating expenses over two years – money intended to stop a proposed increase in discounted passes for seniors, youth and the disabled and to blunt service cuts, according to the agency’s top official.

The always colorful sfgate.com comments at the bottom of the page are a melange of 50X thumbs-upped “boycott!”; “let’s see what they do with NO revenue!!!”, etc. And that certainly resonates: here’s MUNI, on the verge of raising the cost of passes, even for seniors and youths, and cutting service on almost every single line, even during rush hour; and here’s the MUNI operators union, who are rejecting a delay of their normal every-year raise and contribution to their pension fund that could have prevented or eased the huge service-slashing, old-person and young-person crunching changes.

But as much as I want to flip off the driver of the next bus I board, it’s not their fault. By rejecting the change to their previously negotiated contract, the operators are being perfectly rational. After all, their current contract, which mandates that their pay be tied to the the average of the two highest-paid transit agencies in the nation, is pretty frickin’ sweet. And unlike some of those other times that you’ve heard of a union taking a tax cut (think: airline pilots unions), MUNI operators don’t have to worry about their company folding if they don’t dock their salaries: the existence of MUNI is stipulated (wisely) in SF’s city charter, and won’t go bankrupt unless San Francisco does (not the case for United, Delta, etc.). If MUNI fares go way up, a few people might stop riding. But most San Franciscans who ride MUNI don’t do it because it’s easier or more fun than driving or biking, but because they don’t have a car, can’t pay for parking if they do, have a job that doesn’t mix with showing up sweaty after a bike ride, etc. So the riders will get screwed and pay more, and the drivers will not care, because they still have the 1.5th highest paying transit operator job in the nation. And why should they? Would you look that gift horse in the mouth? Everybody wants more money, and the MUNI operators are in a good position because they have a really good government contract. Walking away from that contract doesn’t mean fewer layoffs, or more money in the future because their company avoided bankruptcy. It’s perfectly rational for these guys, callous as it may seem, to stick it to the old farts and the under-18 set.

But let’s not forget that while it’s a no-brainer not to walk away from guaranteed raises, the citizens of San Francisco are the people who approved the guaranteed raises when we approved the amendments to the city charter included in Prop A in 2007 (h/t sf.streetsblog.org), and in our democratic form of government, we’re the ones that the MUNI drivers are eventually accountable to. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is trying to put a measure on the June ballot that eliminates the raises guaranteed by Prop A, and I think it’s a good idea. We should pay our city employees well, but in a recession, local governments can’t afford to automatically disburse fat raises to all employees of a given agency. Driving MUNI buses is a hard job, but I can’t imagine that even with slightly curtailed benefits, you’d have any problem recruiting new drivers or keeping old ones around, which is all that we, as San Franciscans, need to care about. I know it seems crass and capitalistic, but if the MUNI operators get to seem crass and capitalistic, so can we.

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