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Roger Marenco has a tough job. He’s president of the Transport Workers Union of America, Local 250A, the union that represents several collective bargaining units in San Francisco, including Muni operators and transit fare inspectors.
His role requires him to be deeply plugged into the needs of his members, many of whom have been on the frontlines during this pandemic helping to facilitate the travel of essential workers and the most transit-dependent, as well as advocate publicly and behind closed doors with city officials for policies to protect his workers and advance the interest of transit operators and riders alike.
Having spent much of his life in the Mission District, where he got his start grassroots organizing around housing issues and tenants’ rights, Marenco has deep roots in the San Francisco community. He’s passionate about the role Muni plays in making The City function and stalwart in his fight for better working conditions for the people behind the transit system.
We sat down to talk about what his role, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Muni operators and why the health of a transit system is contingent upon the health of its workers.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: I’m in constant communication with SFMTA and its top leaders in terms of new rules, new policies that they are trying to implement. There are also tons of meetings whether that is with the agency, community-based organizations, non-profits and public transportation advocates but also with City Hall for committee, Board of Supervisors or SFMTA meetings.
So, it’s a lot of politics. It’s fun, it’s challenging. I enjoy the part where the local union gets to express their views, thoughts and opinions as opposed to the story just being one-sided from the agency’s perspective. I really like getting the side of the story of the operators out in the forefront.
Q: What brought you to this position?
A: I was a transit operator before. Technically, I’m still a transit operator, I’m just on leave from that position because I was elected to this role. Prior to the presidency, I was operating the streetcars, the F train that runs up and down on Market Street. I started with Muni in 2013.
Q: Are you from San Francisco?
A: I was born in El Salvador, and I came here when I was 8-years-old, maybe. I’ve been in the Mission District ever since. Before coming to Muni, I was and still am a community organizer grassroots mobilizer, and the type of work I was doing was political as well working on housing and tenants’ rights issues. I was on the verge of being evicted with my family back in 2001, and I started organizing my community. I did not know how to organize, and I did not know what I was doing, but I had some natural talent. After a couple months, my family and I became one of the first families to overturn an eviction in the Mission District through grassroots organizing.
Q: What are the similarities between that work and your current position?
A: Oftentimes, our folks, our workers, they just don’t know. They don’t know the rules. They don’t know how the policies work, they don’t know their own contract rights. And it’s a lot of teaching and educating our members. I really enjoy that — educating our members — I do have the patience to help. At the same time, while I’m teaching them I’m actually learning from them so it’s a great interaction.
Q: What did you learn as a streetcar operator?
A: It’s always a dangerous job, it always has been, just because dealing with the public can be somewhat challenging. 99 percent of everybody is great, but you get that small one percent that will just make your life hell.
Q: How do you view the role of Muni operators in San Francisco?
A: I’ve always referred to the transit operators as the bloodline of San Francisco. They give life to The City. Without the buses, without the transit operators, there is no blood flow throughout the veins and The City literally does not move.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges for Muni operators during the pandemic?
A: In the beginning, we were not being issued an adequate amount of PPE. That has since changed, and some of the challenge is just the psychological effect it has had on operators. They deal with hundreds, maybe thousands, of passengers on a daily basis. It’s difficult knowing you could potentially contract COVID-19 and bring it home. Another thing, sometimes operators try to enforce mask compliance rules and they get a negative response, so that puts the operator in a difficult position just trying to keep the public safe.
Q: What have been the biggest successes for Muni operators?
A: As difficult as it’s been, we’ve seen operators ready, willing and able to provide service at any given point in time. They have been here since day one, some of them have not even taken a sick day. That shows their tenacity, their endurance. We have also created the Blue Collar Task Force with other unions in the Bay Area, a response to the Blue Ribbon Task Force. The pun is definitely intended. That has allowed us to reach out to others so we can build a broader coalition, larger support network system.
Q: Do you think people will appreciate Muni operators more after the pandemic?
A: Time will tell. I hope so. I hope that people see and understand that operators were here during the pandemic, and operators are still here.
Q: What do you wish people knew about your union members?
A: I’d like for them to know that the job isn’t simply about driving a bus. You might have to be a teacher, a big brother, guidance counselor, facilitator, sometimes an EMT. An operator has to wear many hats because of the amount of people we deal with and the types situations we encounter on a daily basis.
Q: What’s your favorite Muni route?
A: The F line streetcar. That’s the last line I rode and I just loved operating it. It’s fantastic. Driving a little train down the street is just so cool.
Also the 14-R because that’s my go-bus that I would hop on every single day in my neighborhood.
Q: What can Muni riders do to make their drivers feel appreciated?
A: Just simply say thank you to the operator for their service. It’s that simple.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.