The last week of 2015 has kicked up some noxious fumes over the low wages paid to our city’s newest transit drivers.
Muni is assuredly no one’s model metropolitan transit agency, with regular service delays and breakdowns, perpetual grime and random crime, and now we can add employee revolt to the mix. But for good and for ill, it is how we roll in The City. Despite the well-publicized problems, it remains the best — and, for many, only — way to travel through San Francisco.
For those who doubt there is social strife resting uncomfortably just under the surface in this city, spend some time aboard Muni. The transit lines pulse with the character and tensions of The City. Physical fights and harsh words between passengers are not uncommon, but neither are music, new insights and unexpected conversations. The transit lines certainly aren’t San Francisco in a microcosm but rather are The City in a pressure cooker — each ride seems potentially explosive and revelatory.
But if not all is serene in the passenger area, increasingly discontent is also growing for those behind the wheel.
This week, the San Francisco Examiner published a series of stories documenting how Muni’s most recent contract cuts the pay of new drivers to about half of what recruits previously made during their first five years. This has forced many to find second jobs, including driving for Uber or other transit companies on their off-hours, and move farther away from San Francisco, which some operators feared could impact the safety of Muni riders.
Muni and its operator union should explore reopening the portion of the contract governing the pay structure for new drivers. A more equitable solution needs to be found to keep new recruits on the road.
Muni provides solid wages and benefits for most veteran operators, but for those just joining the ranks, it’s now a very different story. It’s not surprising that most of the workforce lives outside The City — most service sector employees, unless they are willing to live in dorm-like housing, have long been priced out of San Francisco. This is true as well for those who drive our buses and trains — as many as 85 percent live outside The City, according to Eric Williams, president of TWU Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators.
In a series of interviews, operators and union reps told the Examiner that unrest is growing within the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency over the inequity of the latest contract. Experienced Muni operators typically make $60,000 to $70,000 a year, but the 800 Muni operators hired since July 2014 make 63 percent of that under the new contract — as low as $37,000 a year, before union dues and benefits. One full-time Muni operator told us he makes about $2,100 a month, after taxes.
According to the SFMTA, 60 of those new operators have quit over the past year and a half, but Williams disputed that figure, estimating the exodus of new drivers at about fivefold that amount — a serious drain of operators that imperils the system that so many depend on. Over the past five years, annual ridership has floated between 214 million and 228 million passengers, according to the SFMTA.
The drivers who cart us around this city on public transit deserve more than our thanks; they need support from city officials, and a more balanced contract so drivers don’t have to moonlight or work overtime to make ends meet. They, of course, should also feel our appreciation.
So, the next time you board, if the moment strikes you, thank the driver for getting you where you need to go.