When 700 drivers simultaneously came down with the Monday Muni Malaise on June 2, the opening salvo of a three-day "sickout," they didn't make many friends. Drivers, however, already knew they weren't popular: 65 percent of voters in 2010 approved Proposition G (over the strenuous opposition of the drivers and their union), which eliminated Muni drivers' charter-enshrined requirement to be at least the second-highest paid transit workers in the nation.
The sickout left hundreds of thousands of commuters to wait, for hours, for beyond-packed buses and trains. So, sympathy for drivers protesting double-digit raises was not forthcoming. And yet, due to a loophole in Prop. G, how Muni passengers feel about the current labor stalemate doesn't much matter.
Like all city employees, when drivers and management reach a labor impasse, the matter goes to binding arbitration. After years of going without raises, drivers now claim the pay hikes offered by management will be eaten up, and then some, by increased pension obligations. Unlike other city employees, however, only Muni drivers, per Prop. G, must convince an arbitrator their needs outweigh "the public interest in efficient and reliable transit."
That's a damn near impossible standard, and drivers' union president Eric Williams has accused Muni management of negotiating lackadaisically, steering talks into a "lopsided arbitration process" drivers can't win.
But, apparently, two can play lackadaisically. In protest of what they characterize as a crappy deal, and making a mockery of prohibitions against striking, drivers called in sick en masse. And, if no agreement is reached come June 30, the drivers' contract expires. They won't get their potential double-digit raises. But they won't be on the hook for that hefty pension contribution either.
Prop. G imposes arbitration terms favorable to management — and, ostensibly, the riding, taxpaying public. But, drivers tell SF Weekly, its hidden flaw is that it doesn't mandate that drivers actually show up for the hearing. Muni spokesman Paul Rose confirms that, if the drivers opt not to submit to binding arbitration, no one can force them to do so. And then they'll enjoy their preferred economic status quo for "as long as a year."
In "as long as a year," much can unfold.
In 2013, a judge at the state Public Employment Relations Board sided with the drivers' union, and stripped key elements out of Prop. G. The city appealed, however. So, at present, Prop. G remains intact. But, in the not-too-distant future, the case may be resolved — quite possibly in the drivers' favor. If so, their next session of binding arbitration won't require surmounting insurmountable standards.
The future appears uncertain — but unpleasant. A fitting analogy for any Muni passenger awaiting a bus or train.