National union takes over Muni local in midst of contract talks, citing ‘infighting’ and ‘dysfunction’

The leadership of Muni’s operator union has been kicked to the curb even as contract negotiations for roughly 2,000 drivers are underway, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Transport Workers Union Local 250-A’s leadership was suspended Thursday by the national union, the Transport Workers Union of America, who will take over ongoing contract negotiations with The City.

In the meantime, Local 250-A has been placed into “receivership” by the Transport Workers Union of America, which will assume all of the local’s responsibilities.

The fate of the Muni workers’ contract — and therefore their wages — could potentially solve, or worsen, an operator shortage that has slowed the commutes of tens of thousands of San Franciscans.

In an email sent to all members of Local 250-A, which was obtained by the Examiner, the national Transport Workers Union said they brought together warring factions of the union’s leadership to “put an end to the infighting driven dysfunction among the leadership of Local 250-A.”

That conflict apparently reached such a fever-pitch that an outside union started a “decertification drive” to break up Local 250-A, potentially dissolving representation for Muni’s workers.

“In recent days, the situation deteriorated to the point where decisive action by the TWU International is required to protect Local 250-A members,” the Transport Workers Union leadership wrote in a letter to Muni operators.

“The TWU International leadership considers the interests of the rank and file members of Local 250-A to be paramount in this fight,” they added. “The internal strife among your divided local officers must not be permitted to harm our members any further.”

Myriad unions who represent city workers are now in ongoing negotiations with city leadership over their contracts, including Local 250-A, which represent Muni operators.

“In general it’s an extraordinary measure a union typically takes only in dire circumstances,” said Fred Glass, City College of San Francisco labor professor and author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement.

“Sometimes it will happen because a local treasurer or group of officers is caught with their hand in the cookie jar, or there’s an intractable failure to resolve differences amongst leaders,” he explained. “It’s not something that’s usually done lightly.”

The Transport Workers Union flew San Francisco’s Muni union leadership, Local 250-A President Roger Marenco and Secretary-Treasurer Terrence Hall, to New York for peace talks in late February, according to previous correspondence from the national union leadership.

Those talks were not fruitful, the Transport Workers Union wrote in their most recent letter.

“Unfortunately, their infighting did not stop, and Local 250-A officers and executive board members chose not to resolve their differences,” the Transport Workers Union wrote of the local leadership.

The exact allegations of each side have been difficult to determine, as none of the key players returned requests for comment.

However, some aspects of the dispute have bubbled up among members.

Hall and his allies, who were previously allies of former Local 250-A President Eric Williams, said they suspended President Marenco after the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency complained Marenco may be planning an illegal work stoppage, according to a letter posted to the Local 250-A website.

In one of Marenco’s YouTube videos briefing Muni operators on the contact, Marenco said “We need to take drastic action. Imagine what the city and county of San Francisco would look like without a bus out here … I’ll tell you what, how about nobody comes to work. None of the 30,000 city workers come to work. Let’s see how that would look.”

Whether Marenco was speaking metaphorically or literally, the Local 250-A executive board chose to honor SFMTA management’s complaint and suspend Marenco’s presidency pending further investigation — and to add to the stakes, Marenco was suspended only days before contract negotiations with SFMTA began.

Rudy Gonzalez, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, noted that Local 250-A is still in good standing with the council. However, he said, “I have to question who benefits from chaos, or perpetuating a narrative of chaos in a group of workers — and that’s the boss, that’s the employer.”

Meanwhile, allies of Hall were said to have become violent at a previous union meeting.

A petition was started in February 23 to remove a union chairperson named Robert Gainer, who allegedly physically threatened a Muni operator at a February union meeting at City College of San Francisco Evan’s Campus.

In the petition to remove Gainer, a Muni operator named Halmar Duran wrote that Gainer should be removed from his position because he made “an incident of violence, threat and intimidation he made against me on at least six occasions in front of all the union members who were attending the meeting, making physical suggestions and calling me to go out of the building and physically fight, which I ignored all times.”

Gainer allegedly threatened Duran after the operator defended President Marenco, and the right of an operator to speak in his defense.

“I want to report that I was scared and felt intimidated that night,” Duran wrote.

Operators on both sides of the conflict told the Examiner, anonymously, that each side was using racial slurs against one another. Many of Marenco’s supporters are Latino, and many of Hall’s supporters are black.

The San Francisco Latino Forum weighed in on the matter last Friday, and in a letter to Local 250-A they wrote “We have many family members that are members of your local union,” adding “We find ourselves very troubled by the actions of the executive board … at a time when you’re going to need everyone’s support in this city during your contractual negotiations it is so unwise to show such a division and to allow for solidarity and unity to be discarded.”

The tensions have bubbled for months.

Although this is perhaps a rare public display of union infighting, the drivers behind the wheel of Muni’s buses and trains have already seen their wage issues dragged into the public sphere: City auditors found that their most recent contract, negotiated in 2014, was so dissatisfying to new Muni workers that SFMTA is having trouble retaining them.

The issue isn’t necessarily pay, but how long it takes operators to reach full pay. Under previous contracts it was 14 months, now it takes roughly four to five years to reach full salary.

That contract disparity led to Muni operators taking their training and driving buses in other cities, which left Muni buses in garages undriven across San Francisco last summer. The ensuing “Muni meltdown” was revealed by an Examiner investigation, and spurred City Hall hearings and a demand by Supervisor Vallie Brown for fairer wages for Muni operators.

Amid this already precarious backdrop, Local 250-A’s alleged infighting may tip the scales of the negotiation.

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