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Examiner Editorial: Muni operator deal bleeds transit riders

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Right now, San Francisco is struggling to close a $483 million deficit, and most of the public employee unions — including those representing Municipal Transportation Agency workers — are supporting a plan for voluntary givebacks to save $200 million. But Muni’s 2,220 bus and rail operators in Transport Workers Union Local 250-A are due to get an automatic $9 million annual raise starting July 1. And in February they voted down a $15 million concession request.

Muni operators enjoy remarkably self-serving work rules that allow them to be absent without notice and still collect overtime for the week. The transit agency is barred from hiring part-timers or splitting shifts to cover peak commute hours, which creates pointless costs for overtime and midday standby operators.

Muni could save a much-needed $3.1 million per year merely by plugging these payroll leaks and eliminating $500,000 in salaries for six employees who work full-time on union affairs, according to the disturbing new management audit from the Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst’s Office. Meanwhile, the agency has just begun its latest round of 10 percent service cuts to cope with this fiscal year’s remaining $11 million budget shortfall — plus another $53 million deficit waiting next year.

The Muni operators’ privileged exemption from collective bargaining pressures — bestowed by voters in three ballot measures during more prosperous times — has degenerated into a tangled knot of wasteful work rules, bizarre perks and unsustainable compensation formulas. The system spawns millions of dollars in unnecessary overtime and other expenses. With heftier take-home pay guaranteed every year no matter what, the operators have no incentive to cooperate with any rational changes that would make Muni run more effectively and waste less money.

The operators are now clinging especially desperately to their special status because it could be taken away next year. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association are gathering 70,000 signatures to qualify a November ballot measure that would void the Muni drivers’ guarantee of being paid the second-highest transit operator wages in America (currently $27.92 per hour).

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As SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf said in support of the petition drive, “Because the City Charter sets wages and benefits by an automatic formula, management does not have any leverage when it comes time to negotiating work rules.”

The blunt truth is that San Francisco can no longer afford guaranteed raises and anti-productive work rules. The City’s police and firefighters sit down at the bargaining table to negotiate their undeniably generous pay rates. It is past time for our bus and light-rail operators to do the same. Otherwise there is no chance San Franciscans will ever have a public transit service they can be proud of.

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