Willa Johnson isn’t new to breaking glass ceilings — for about 10 years she’s served as San Francisco’s second-ever woman “grip” on a cable car.
It’s a tough job regarded for decades by Muni operators as a man’s job, one that requires the physical strength, concentration and tenacity to pull the stiff levers that grip a cable car’s cables and yank it up San Francisco’s steepest hills.
Now, Johnson is trying to break another glass ceiling by becoming the first-ever woman president of Muni’s operator union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, and represent her 2,000-plus fellow members.
But Johnson and the four other women running for leadership positions at the TWU in the upcoming December election have been disqualified from running, which they allege is discrimination perpetrated by their union.
President Eric D. Williams, who presided during the controversial 2014 “sick out” that saw more than 700 Muni operators call in sick to work during contract negotiations with The City and crippled Muni service, is termed out as president in December. Four operators are now running: Rafael Cabrera, Roger Marenco, Andrew Simmons and DeJohn Williams.
Chairperson and union seats at Muni yards across The City are also up for elections, who help operators deal with grievances and management. None of the new candidates are women — and only two incumbents out of 28 available positions are women.
“I’m not wavering,” Johnson said.
She contacted the TWU International to allege discrimination against the would-be women leaders, as well as some fellow male members who also wished to run, who she said were also disqualified as candidates for allegedly dubious reasons.
“We love our union,” said LaCrecia Logan, a 20-year Muni operator who is running for the chair position of Muni’s Woods Division, a vehicle yard. “We just want to be treated fairly.”
Karl Cato, chairman of the election committee for TWU Local 250-A, said in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner, “We are conducting the 2017 General Election in accordance with the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO International Constitution.”
Cato wrote that operators running for election needed to be in “good standing” by paying union dues for a period of 12 consecutive months, and attend at least 50 percent of membership meetings. He declined to answer any questions.
But Johnson, Logan and another operator running for office, Loree Woods-Bowman, contest they meet all the criteria. Johnson was out of work for a car accident for several months, she said, but was allowed to pay her dues once she came back to work by the union.
She showed the Examiner documentation from Cato clearing her to run for another office, as a delegate, despite the payment snafu from her car accident, which she says calls into question her disqualification for president.
Logan said the female candidates want to highlight issues for all operators, but particularly women and single mothers at Muni, who struggle under workplace rules — including a lack of bathroom breaks — that harm them in particular.
Johnson isn’t deterred by her union’s alleged discrimination.
“Women are born leaders,” she said.