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Willie's Wild Ride 

The Transport Workers Union contract with Muni is up for renewal, and TWU boss Larry Martin says that anybody who wants to roll back the union's cush work rules, lucrative salary structure, and handsome trust fund is a "racist" and can go to hell. Meet t

Wednesday, Dec 27 1995
Irwin Lum weaves his way through the hundreds of revelers at the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union Hall as Willie Brown proclaims himself mayor of San Francisco. From the podium, Brown admits his assessment of the precinct reports is premature -- only 17 percent of the vote has been counted -- but this is Brown country and no one is going to raise a dissenting voice. Least of all Lum and his fellow Municipal Railway workers, who pepper the crowd, dressed in their telltale brown duds.

This is the bus drivers' moment of incontrovertible victory. Under attack from Mayor Jordan since the summer for their contract and work rules, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which represents the city's 1,800 Muni drivers, is now on the express line to political power.

The union provided the bulk of Brown's precinct walkers in the general election and the Dec. 12 runoff. Local transit workers, their union, and national transit unions gave Brown a respectable $10,600 in campaign contributions. But the link between the new mayor and the union goes beyond simple money and shoe leather. They are bonded by a more immutable force.

Half of TWU's members are African-American. While the Irish and Italians got their leg up putting out fires and arresting bad guys -- and at the same time shutting out minorities -- since the late '60s blacks have entered the middle class through the San Francisco Municipal Railway, and more importantly through the TWU, which protected their economic status by helping elect friendly mayors and supervisors and negotiating gainful contracts with those elected officials.

Long story short, the TWU is practically woven into the fabric of Brown's Brioni suits.

As Brown wraps his victory speech, Lum leaves the hall, arm in arm with his wife. Outside the hall, the 45-year-old Muni supervisor and TWU member talks to me about the new mayor.

"He understands the issues facing our workers," Lum says. "But he also understands the riders' needs. He is able to bring CR>all sides to the table. He'll be fair. He won't antagonize anyone."

Lum bids farewell, and he and his wife go home. Just then, one of the "sides" Lum spoke of -- perhaps the most formidable one -- emerges from the inky darkness on his way into the party. It's Mark Mosher, the executive director of the Committee on Jobs (COJ). The political arm of corporate San Francisco, the COJ represents the city's 30 biggest corporations: Bank of America, PG&E, the Pacific Stock Exchange, and PacTel, to name a few. While the TWU represents the bulwark of trade unionism in San Francisco, the COJ is the big dog of das capital.

But Mosher walked precincts for Brown, too. And his family goes way back with the new mayor. The Moshers held one of Brown's first fund-raisers when he was a greenhorn legislator. More important, though, COJ members, their employees, and relatives of both funneled $40,000 into the Willie Brown for Mayor Committee, making the COJ one of the single largest donors. Also on the scene at the victory party is Don Solem, the COJ's fleshy lobbyist.

As Lum and Mosher pass each other, going in opposite directions, they signify what will be one of the mayor-elect's toughest and first political balancing acts.

Brown made "fixing" Muni his No. 1 issue during the campaign. But his big-tent Democrat ways have landed him between two powerful constituencies -- big business and the TWU -- who have diametrically opposed plans for fixing the transit system, which can't be salvaged until business and labor reach some rapprochement. Brown will serve as the hard-nosed diplomat trying to negotiate a detente.

The TWU wants more money from downtown companies to fill the chronic Muni deficit, which hits about $25 million a year. Studies have shown that the downtown core -- from Folsom Street to the south and Vallejo Street to the north to Franklin Street to the west and the Embarcadero to the east -- uses a majority of the city's Muni services and reaps considerable economic benefits from the transit sCR>ystem. Yet independent analysts have concluded that Muni subsidizes the Financial District to the tune of $54 million a year.

Downtown -- the Chamber of Commerce, the Committee on Jobs, developers, and property owners -- has its own list of gripes about the transit system. Not surprisingly, many of them are aimed at the TWU.

The union's contract and benefit package, which ensures the TWU one of the best deals in the country, is a thorn in business' side. Driver salaries and benefits are locked in the city charter, hampering civil service officials in their attempts to negotiate efficiency measures with the union.

The business community wants concessions on many of the TWU's work rules, which, depending on whom you talk to, suck a purported $5 million to $10 million out of the system each year.

Both sides in this historic standoff are equally intransigent. But with Willie Brown's election, they are now equally powerful.

So far everyone's playing nice. Brown is newly elected, and the mantra of the day is conciliation. But don't be fooled. The contradictory positions of two of Brown's key support bases will not stay at a cordial simmer forever. Soon they will boil over; sooner than Brown imagines.

After his Jan. 8 inauguration, Brown will have four months to prepare a city budget. Part of that budget, of course, will be Muni and its nettlesome deficit.

The range of options available to the new mayor is limited to cutting labor costs, raising fares, cutting service, or raising taxes. Cutting service or raising fares would be political suicide. So that leaves him caught between the union and the business community. A rock and a hard place.

But remember, this is the master of the political deal we're talking about. This is a man who can see wriggle room where only a master physicist with laser technology can navigate.

About The Author

George Cothran


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