When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's controversial pilot program to allow Google buses (and Yahoo buses and Apple buses and Facebook buses) to use Muni stops for a small fee went before the SFMTA board in January 2014, neither Google, Yahoo, Apple, nor Facebook showed up to speak in defense of their commuter programs. The titans of Silicon Valley rarely stoop to conquer local regulatory bodies. Instead, the strongest voice in favor of tech shuttles that day came from Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, the luxury bus and limousine company founded by Novato-born Gary Bauer in 1989. Over the course of the contentious hearing, representatives from Bauer's touted their company as an important job provider to working class San Franciscans.
Bauer's enjoys a cozy relationship with San Francisco's political establishment. A Bauer's VP stood behind Mayor Ed Lee when Lee announced the shuttle program in 2014, emails later revealed that Bauer's believed it had a "handshake agreement" with the SFMTA to use Muni stops free of charge for the 10 years prior to the Google bus backlash, and Bauer's buses ferried attendees at this year's US Conference of Mayors from the Hilton to a tour of Uber's headquarters. (Bauer's did not respond to inquiries for this story.)
But that relationship is about to be tested by the Teamsters union, which is determined to ensure that the jobs created by tech shuttle companies are union jobs.
The Teamsters had already successfully organized tech shuttle drivers employed by Loop Transportation (which transports Facebook employees) and Compass Transportation (used by Yahoo, Apple, eBay, Zynga, Genentech, Evernote, and Amtrak), when, in March of this year, they reached out to Bauer's workers who drive shuttles for Cisco and EA Games. According to Doug Bloch, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 7, just days after union organizers contacted Bauer's workers outside the company's Pier 50 headquarters, Bauer's management started its own "independent" union called the "Professional Commuter Drivers' Union," signed up workers, recognized the union, and negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement for the 74 workers the Teamsters wanted to organize.
"It's not the first time I've seen a company union," says Bloch. "But what amazed me about this was how fast it happened."
In today's labor circles, "company union" is the equivalent of a mild slur, frequently aimed at unions perceived to be too cooperative with management. But real company unions were once commonplace, thanks to the innovations of John D. Rockefeller in the wake of an event that became known as the Ludlow Massacre.
On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company set fire to a camp of striking coal miners and their families, killing 19 men, women, and children. Under pressure to improve industrial relations, Rockefeller, the primary owner of the mine in question, came up with the idea for "employee representation plans" — groups created and controlled by management that would nevertheless provide workers with a venue to air grievances and argue for better working conditions.
Jonathan H. Rees, a labor historian at Colorado State University-Pueblo, explains Rockefeller's reasoning in Representation and Rebellion: "Rather than fight independent trade unions with guns or injunctions, he chose to fight them with kindness. Rockefeller wanted his union to make the UMWA [United Mine Workers of America] obsolete by doing what it did more effectively."
Rockefeller's intentions may have been sincere, but the practice was soon adopted by other industrialists who used such groups as a "union-avoidance" tactic until they were outlawed by the NLRA in 1935.
Of course, that hasn't stopped employers from seeking other union-avoidance strategies, as the ongoing decline in US union membership makes clear. There are no shortage of law firms and consultants advising companies on how to defeat a union organizing drive while staying within the letter of the law, which is why it's surprising that Bauer's created their own company union.
The Teamsters have taken their grievance to the courts, by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; to the streets, by blockading a Bauer's shuttle at 24th and Valencia streets on the morning of Aug. 11; and to the city, by showing up at an SFMTA Board Meeting on Aug. 18 to demand that the regulator implement the Board of Supervisors-endorsed policy of requiring "labor harmony" — i.e., good labor relations that won't result in disruptive protests — from participants in the shuttle program
But while San Francisco's supposedly labor-friendly political establishment has yet to weigh in on the dispute (the SFMTA did not respond to an inquiry by press time), the National Labor Relations Board, which often takes years to adjudicate labor disputes, is preparing to bring down the hammer on Bauer's.
In recognition of how long it takes the NLRB to handle complaints of labor law violation, the board has the option to seek temporary injunctions against an employer. 10(j) injunctions, known by the section of the NLRA, are granted when, "absent interim relief, a respondent could accomplish its unlawful objective before being placed under any legal restraint." NLRB attorneys request the injunctions, which must then be approved by an administrative law judge.
10(j) injunctions are rare. In 2014, the NLRB received more than 20,000 complaints and petitioned for just 38 injunctions, of which it was granted 14 (18 other cases settled before the judge issued a ruling, while the six others were withdrawn or denied). In 2013, the numbers were similar, with 13 injunctions granted, 20 cases settled, and 5 denied or withdrawn.
It's a major vindication for the Teamster's that on Aug. 21, the NLRB filed a petition for a 10(j) against Bauer's, alleging that the company was guilty of the "unlawful foisting upon its employees of a textbook, sham 'company union.'" The NLRB's petition accuses Bauer's of "making a mockery" of workers' rights, describes the PCDU as a "charade," and criticizes Bauer's "carefully orchestrated scheme to prevent unionization."
According to the petition, Bauer's acted on the advice of its legal counsel, which explained to Bauer's how to go about forming a company union. A Bauer's supervisor, Clarence Murdock, persuaded employees to sign a blank piece of paper, "not disclosing that their signatures would be used to furnish a veneer of legitimacy to Bauer's recognition" of the faux-union. Bauer's then recognized the union and imposed a collective bargaining agreement — without any input from the workers supposedly being represented.
These charges come, not from the union, but from a federal agency, which states that "the facts overwhelmingly demonstrate" violations of the law by Bauer's.
"Bauer knew a union campaign was inevitable, and sought an alternative he could control," the petition states.
That may sound like John D. Rockefeller, but Gary Bauer is no John D. Rockefeller.
As for the Teamsters, at the SFMTA meeting, Doug Bloch warned the board members: "This fight is coming to Muni stops. It doesn't look like it's going away, and we're not going away."