Workers’ Inquiry: SF Bus Driver

This is the text of some literature that AS militants made from interviews with a bus driver in the San Francisco public transit system, MUNI.  We’re posting both as an example of the method we use for investigating conditions and turning the results into agitation, and to ask for thoughts from our comrades on the information/intervention here.  

Inter v iew w ith a M U N I o p e r a tor : W o r k e r s ’ H e a lth A n d

Safety  

This interview from a brother who’s worked as a MUNI operator for more than ten years is one powerful and particular expression of how bosses exploit workers for profit, leaving us physically and psychologically maimed. It reveals how at the same time that passengers have seen fares double in recent years and the elimination of bus lines, the men and women behind the wheel are also feeling the effects of austerity. This operator’s experience reflects the daily lives of millions of other workers around the world who also face cuts to social services, racist police brutality, attacks on basic political freedoms under the scapegoat of “terrorism,” and an overall capitalist assault on the minds and bodies of working people. Nevertheless, where there is oppression, there is also resistance. We must take pride in and study the current militant struggles Palestinian and Egyptian transport workers wage with other workers in their countries to topple hated

pro-imperialist regimes and achieve genuine independence and liberation. In the Middle East and in San Francisco, the common relationship working-class people of all religions and nationalities share in the act of riding public transportation provides a needed space and platform to organize around our common class interests. One issue that stands out is what seems to be a vicious cycle between a speedup of the pace of work, a lack of break time, excessive disciplining of workers that take sick days, expensive medical coverage, and obstacles to getting medical clearance. What issues do you see? What issues affect you as a MUNI passenger, or as a worker in San Francisco, that might be resolved through a united struggle of workers from many different workplaces that face common problems? Send us an email and let us know.

Question: We heard from some MUNI operators that management has cut down the number of sick days to only 3 days per year, with operators facing discipline including suspension if they take more than 3 days in a 12 month period. What is going on here?

Answer: “That’s not really accurate – here management has not adhered to their own sick day Chapter

12W. They had an article in the examiner about it last week. San Francisco is one of the cities that allows for employees to take sick leave and be paid. All employees have that right. Here we can accumulate the hours and we are supposed to be able to take them without penalty. This ordinance is on the books but the city itself isn’t adhering to it. Operators are increasing harassed and threatened for using their accumulated sick time. There is no rule that covers anything other than what 12W covers which is for paid sick time. Sick leave is the only way to get time off. When they make threats against operators for using their sick time, well there is no other way for operators to rest their body to recover from fatigue, except for using the available sick hours… There are also laws and rules that say we are not supposed to drive if we are sick…. The other thing is Absence rule 420, which requires that you bring a doctor’s note. Neither one of those spell-out any type of discipline….There is no pie in the sky to look forward to. Every other transit system, AC, SAMTRANS, GG transit, has miss out days where operators can call in for a day to rest and recuperate. MUNI doesn’t have that. There is no way for operators to get time off to rest and recuperate. There is no relief in sight for an operator with extra stressed going on in his life.”

Question: Why is management making it so hard to take sick days?

Answer: “Force totals are the reason for this, which is that they are supposed to have a certain number of operators out on the road at any given time, but they haven’t met the force totals in like a decade. This is why service has been substandard. The force total is 120% of the runs and blocks. It used to be 1465 runs and blocks. 120% of the runs and blocks is how many workers they are supposed to have.

Question: Have there been speedups of the MUNI line or reductions in break time for MUNI

operators?

Answer: “Julie Chrisbaum was the one talking about shaving time off of everything. She said she doesn’t care if people get to use the bathroom or not. Break time at the end of a run is often used to catch up to the schedule, leaving operators driving nonstop for hours with sporadic 3-5 minute breaks. Operators are not given real breaks. They get recovery time. At other bus agency’s operators get breaks of up to an hour or two…. There have been speedups in the schedules that are unrealistic, especially during construction…. They posted in the newspaper again that they have taken away running time. On the 38L there are a lot of complaints. They reduced the amount of time to get from one end to the other end by 7 or 8 minutes. You have 4 minutes to get from 48th Ave and point lobos down to 33rd avenue, which is 15 blocks. That is at least 5 stops. Then you have 5 minutes to get from 33rd Ave to park presidio. Then you have decent times from there out…. You can’t be more than five minutes late or a minute and a half early or you get disciplined. You don’t want to be late cause you pick up too many people, but you have to make sure you aren’t more than 90 seconds early. This is stressful…. They have never told us if the times are arrival times or departure times. If you are early and you sit there for 3 or 4 minutes until you are ‘on time’, if a supervisor is there he can write you up…. ” There are no such things as breaks. When you get a passenger on the bus that is mad because they are late, you have to keep in mind that the driver is also stressed because he is behind schedule…. MUNI is one of the hardest working transit agencies in the country. We carry the most people per capita right behind New York. We have the most modes of equipment, the old school trolleys, LRV, cable cars, electric buses, and motor coaches…. People want to ride safe, comfortable, not packed in like sardines. I want to know that the driver is in good condition to drive. Its all about saving money but it is unsafe. Speedups mean the danger increases. You don’t go faster in a city like this without sacrificing safety…. When you are missing a bus in front of you, you are really trying to catch up and make it. People are missing buses in front of them and are hauling ass, picking up large volumes of people, and then get written up by management…. Operators that are behind schedule can be suspended or terminated. The system has always been that you can’t run ahead of schedule, but now it is also that you cant run behind schedule. They say that they can make adjustments if people are behind schedule.”

Question: What would you say to allegations that MUNI operators receive inordinate amounts of overtime?

Answer: “When they talk about people abusing overtime, they have to keep in mind that operators are subjecting themselves to high stress conditions and are coming in because muni is short-staffed and they want to make sure people have service, and they can lose their jobs if something goes wrong while they are working on an overtime shift. There is no consideration for the fact that you are coming in on a day when you could be at home…. Nobody has ever addressed the fact that MUNI operators are the only ones that generate any type of revenue in the MTA, and we are the lowest paid of anyone at MUNI. MUNI operators are paid less than any other workers at the MTA. We may have more overtime, but they have higher hourly wages…. Operators are the most necessary workers at MUNI…. The MTA has never been required to

show that they properly spend their money. Nobody ever comes down on management for calling in

sick…. MUNI operators took furlough days before any other workers in the city.”

Question: We have heard from operators that common work related health issues at MUNI include leg pain, high blood pressure, gas fumes building up at the barns, and that common surgeries at MUNI are knee, wrist and shoulder surgeries. What can you tell us about work related health issues at MUNI?

Answer: “Back pain is a big problem. We have a very high number of operators with sleep apnea. Recently they started to require that everybody with a neck size over 16 (men) and 15 or 14 (for women) go get tested for sleep apnea…. The job wears your body down and creates a lot of fatigue. We have a lot of people that can’t get their license renewed because of health problems that they got at work (inability to control your diabetes, your blood pressure). Conditions at work increase the incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure, but you cant solve your diabetes or high blood pressure while you are still working the job…. This year the MTA has been really stringent in making you go to SFGH to qualify for your medical.

We have medical doctors at several of the hospitals around here but according to management they don’t qualify for you to get your license renewed. We had an operator that had seizures seven years ago, and the nurse practitioner at SFGH invalidated him. The medical clearance is necessary for you to get your class b license… This guy went to a seizure specialist at was cleared, and got his green card, which the city invalidated [because the nurse practitioner at SFGH didn’t clear him]. The city will only take clearance from general.”

Question: What are healthcare costs like for MUNI operators? We have heard reports of medical costing 600-900$ per month for operators with families.

Answer: The healthcare premiums have gone down. As a part of the contract that they just forced on us they slightly reduced the cost of healthcare. The trust fund was removed from us in the new contract. It

used to be that you would pay your whole retirement and your whole medical, (medical was 6-700 a month

even back then), but then you would get all that money back at the end of the year…. Twelve years ago they started reducing the amount that you would get refunded at the end of the quarter. Some people would get as much as 3600 3700 per check. About 12 years ago they decided they would reduce the amount of

pay out by reducing the amount of our contributions. It got to the point where you wouldn’t get back anything close to the amount that paid in to it, to the point where I stopped paying into it. There are still some people here that get a trust fund. “

Question: We have heard that the superintendant at Flynn division is especially oppressive. Can you shed light on this?

Answer: I think she [Sharita] was appointed by upper management to see what people will put up with. We had a whole group of operators that got letters saying they would be charged with dishonesty for calling in sick. When this article came out last week about the sick day policy it showed that what she has been doing is illegal. She has to have the blessing of someone higher because she is breaking the rules. Right now there are a few people that have suspension letters due to sick days…. The union bosses have been talking to Sharita’s bosses. The union is supposed to be the person that enforces the policy.”

QUESTION: How has the union changed since the recent union election?

By the bylaws you are supposed to have monthly union meeting at the division. Now they are doing that again. There are 2 monthly meetings at the division, the safety meeting and the regular meeting. A big complaint with the old regime was that we weren’t having the division meetings, and the only information people would get was through the rumor mill after the general meeting…. Eric [the new president of TWU

250A] and them are trying to bring the membership back, but it is really hard for them because they have to regain people’s trust. I think that our international allowed the bad things to go way too far. If I knew then what I know now I would file a lawsuit against the international and the local because they did not

represent us. When Gavin Newsome forced that contract down our throat they were supposed to do what

the membership told us, but they were for sure representing what the mayor and what management wanted. Gavin Newsome got on the newspaper and told the workers they had to go back and revote…. We’ve had people that were suspended or attacked by their own union heads for speaking out and doing what they are doing. ”

Question: What would you say to MUNI operators that blame MUNI’s budget problems on passengers that don’t pay the fare?

Answer: “Just like management and the media has everyone pointing the finger at us, they have us pointing the finger at the passengers. The media and corporate are always trying to get workers to point the finger at one another. Anytime you see corporate or management coming down on workers, you have to see that you are also a worker. When the owners came down on the NFL players or the NBA players, we still have to recognize that those are union workers that are being attacked by management. Every type of management is trying to see what they can do to defeat the union.”

Question: What would you say to MUNI operators that don’t want to organize to resist oppressive workplace conditions because they are going to retire soon?

Answer: There’s a lot of people that think like that in terms of, “I’m just going to retire and not organize.” When you retire you are not going to cease to exist. You still have to survive here. We try to continue to strengthen not just the union, but also the idea of building solidarity with other workers. We used to have strong community solidarity. The government came in and tried to destroy the solidarity we had because they couldn’t stand that the poor could have a good life. We had block parties, you could go stay at a neighbor’s house any time, you could get work easily from neighbors. The government put drugs and guns into our communities to tear us down. Back then people used to smoke weed and party, but it was never to the point where it would drive people to steal. They found a drug that stopped people from going to work and taking care of their families…. Factory jobs used to support a lot of the people around here that were perhaps undereducated. Even in the projects they used to be wonderful places to live. We knew that we were poor but it was like a family. There was a different mentality of having solidarity and unity in the communities. The problem now is we don’t have that. Then the media and culture started saying this thing about how people that make it out of the hood don’t care about the hood anymore, but it was never looked at like that. It was more like you aspire to be like Mr. Johnson the garbage man or the working class guy in your neighborhood, but now people aspire to become like the drug dealer or rapper that makes huge amounts of money. If you have a parent that is never around, you try to imitate that. The blame is around the board.

Question: What advice would you give to new MUNI operators?

Answer: We try to keep them away from the negative influence. Its kind of hard because these new guys don’t know what unions are about or what unity is about. Some guys even come in and want to do away with the union. They seem to think that what is here has just always been here. A lot of these guys don’t seem to get it. They either never worked a union job, or they don’t realize that the gains that we have were fought for…. I’d rather have lost a fight and been in a fight, than never have stood up and fought at all.”

Contact us at bay.strikes@gmail.com and visit

advancethestruggle.wordpress.com for the full interview

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4 responses to “Workers’ Inquiry: SF Bus Driver

  1. Advance The Struggle

    Just a couple of corrections: that’s proposition F section 12W, enacted in 2008, which requires that all employers provide paid sick leave to employees, and the other is civil service rule 420. Section 12W specifically prohibits threats, harassment, or retaliation for using your sick time. Civil service rule 420 just instructs on how sick time is to be administered.

  2. I’m a driver in Houston, and a member of the same international.

    There’s a lot more that could be said, but thanks for getting this conversation going. For now I only want to add some thoughts to the last 2 interview questions.

    I hear generally the same sentiments at my workplace. A lot of drivers, at least (there other types of workers in our local – cleaners, mechanics, rail operators), are skeptical of the union and their ability to win a fight because of their class composition. We’re at the very bottom of semi-skilled labor. Before getting this job, the best a lot of us could hope for were $12 an hour jobs. When we get this job and start making a whole lot more, a lot of us think, “It can’t get any better than this.”

    As Marx says, “Social being determines social consciousness.”

    I think this is an important insight into the confidence of workers to fight next to what the driver in this interview was getting at; low union density, union busting, and capital’s absorption of unions into the state apparatus and the ensuing muting of the class struggle feature of unions.

  3. In light of the possible coming BART and AC Transit strike, this is incredible and shows the complete neccesity of having roots in a industry before struggle pops off. in other words, CONSISTENT PRACTICAL work when an important industry like transportation is in motion.

    I like all the so-called activist/organizers/dilettantes saying “whoopie! Yay! Yahooooo the workers are going on strike”. Suppose the strike didn’t happen…..all the cheerleaders would go back to doing NOTHING. lol Ahhh to live in the Yay Area with all these fools….

  4. *CONSISTENT PRACTICAL work BEFORE an important industry like transportation is in motion.

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