San Francisco bus drivers stage sick out to protest pay cut

San Francisco bus drivers recently called in sick to protest a new contract proposed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (Muni). The three-day wildcat action was in response to a Muni contract proposal that would reduce take home pay for most Muni workers.

Muni management and the workers’ union, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, had been negotiating a new pay structure with the assistance of a mediator. Muni wants Local 250-A members to start contributing 7.5 percent of their salary to their pension fund. In return, Muni offered the workers a pay increase to offset the worker’s higher pension contribution.

But Local 250-A President Eric Williams told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the proposed pay increase will not offset the higher contributions.

“Once we got our CPA to crunch the numbers, it’s all negative,” said Williams to the Guardian. “Our members will be making $1.10 an hour less (in take home pay) due to this negotiation.”

Under city ordinances that govern labor relations with the city’s transit workers, the workers cannot strike.

The ordinances also put the workers at a further disadvantage because if an agreement over wages can’t be reached, the matter is decided by an arbitrator whose decision must be based on guidelines that favor the city.

“The arbitrator must side with the city if they feel the cost burden will be too high on the city,” said Williams to the Guardian.

Knowing that the arbitration process favored management, Muni’s final offer did little to address worker concerns that the new proposal would mean smaller take home pay for most workers.

When workers voted May 30 on Muni’s offer, they rejected it by a vote of 1,198 to 47.

On the following Monday, workers frustration with Muni’s offer and the negotiating process that members felt was stacked against them boiled over when 700 hundred of them called in sick. The sick out forced the cancellation of 718 out of 1,200 runs.

Drivers continued to call in sick at higher rates than usual for the next two days, but the number calling in sick declined each day.

The union leadership while sympathetic toward the sick out action stated that the action was not sanctioned by the union and urged drivers to return to work.

Because of the inconvenience caused by the sick out, most riders sided with management and criticized the drivers for staying off the job.

The general attitude among members of the public is that Muni drivers are well paid and have good benefits, so they shouldn’t be walking off the job.

But in addition to the new contract proposed by Muni, there are a number of issues that led the frustrated drivers to call in sick.

For one thing, they haven’t received a raise in three years, and while the pay is good, it hasn’t kept up with the rising cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the US to live.

Williams told the Guardian that most Local 250-A members can no longer afford to live in San Francisco and have had to move outside of the city limits.

The drives also felt like they have been singled out for unfair treatment. When the city negotiated with police, fire, and other municipal worker unions, the city provided pay increases that offset the increased amount in worker contributions.

That wasn’t the case with Muni drivers. “The vast majority of drivers would be paid less in real wages over the life of the agreement than they make now. MUNI workers are the only public employees in the City of San Francisco being targeted for a reduction in earnings,” said a statement release by the union after the sick out took place.

“This is a great city, but a very difficult place to operate a bus, streetcar or cable car,” said Williams. “This also is a very expensive city and while (Muni’s) ridership and revenues are on rising, the agency seeks to cut wages and benefits and convert full-time positions to part time.”

Since the sick out, Muni and the city have retaliated. Muni told drivers who called in sick that they must provide notes from their doctors verifying their illnesses.

The City Attorney, meanwhile has filed charges against the union alleging that the union leadership encouraged workers to take part in the sick out.

In another development, the union and Muni were supposed to meet June 7 with the arbitrator to begin the arbitration process. The union, however, decided not to attend.

Should the arbitrator make a decision, union members would have a chance to vote on the decision. If the decision is rejected, the current contract would remain in effect for two years.

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