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Cable car bell ringing contest canceled due to Muni operator boycott

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Bryan Cobb, six-time world bell ringing champion, practices his ring before the 2016 bell ringing competition in Union Square. (Rachael Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner).

This year, the bells will fall silent: The 55th Annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest has been canceled.

While cable cars will continue to ring and ding as they chug up Powell Street, the tradition of Muni operators and grip-people musically ringing cable car bells for glory will not take place this year, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Though the agency was unable to immediately comment on a reason, Muni operators speaking to the San Francisco Examiner said they’re boycotting the event this year to protest the SFMTA slashing California Cable Car line late-night service, which was scaled back from ending at 1 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. late last year.

“They’re angry about the California line,” said Roger Marenco, president of Muni’s operator union, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. “What it does is hurt the public, because the public are the ones that suffer the brunt of it.”

The popular cable car operator bell ringing contest is held annually at Union Square and lets cable car operators and grip-people compete in skill and rhythm, judged by a who’s-who of San Francisco notables. KRON 4’s Stanley Roberts and KTVU 2’s Sal Castaneda were judges last year, for instance, as well as the famous doorman from Sir Francis Drake, Tom Sweeney, when six-time cable car bell ringing champion and cable car grip Byron Cobb won first place.

Cable car operators speaking on background to the Examiner also said the move took money out of the pockets of operators. Those eliminated California line night shifts were run by senior operators, who then took the shifts of less-experienced operators, affecting the work shifts of more than a dozen operators.

SFMTA did not directly comment on the dispute. But Paul Rose, a spokesperson, confirmed “We are not holding the cable car bell ringing contest this year.” Instead, elements of the cable car bell ringing contest “will be folded into our annual Muni Heritage Weekend” on September 7 and 8, he said, an event where the public can ride historic Muni buses and streetcars.

“We hope to bring the event back next year,” Rose said.

[Full disclosure: This reporter competed in the amateur division of the cable car bell ringing contest in 2017 and won third place out of four contestants, ringing the bell while whistling “If I Only Had a Brain” from the Wizard of Oz.]

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