The new contract brings big raises, and a highly-touted reduction in time it takes new Muni operators to reach full pay. (Courtesy photo)

SF Muni operators overwhelmingly approve their contract

Muni operators overwhelmingly voted to approve their contract with The City Thursday.

Muni operators voted to approve their contract with The City Thursday.

And with that contract comes big raises, and a reduction in the time it takes new Muni operators to reach full pay.

That was a major sticking point as a city-led report found that a four-year delay in reaching full pay led to a shortage of Muni operators — last year the agency had 400 operator positions unfilled — which in turn led to slow bus and train service citywide.

The new contract shortened the wage progression to 36 months, down from 48, which Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Roger Marenco told the San Francisco Examiner will lure new operators to drive for Muni.

“I can guarantee that the job itself will be a more attractive job, which will ensure a higher pool of applicants, which in essence means more service for the city and county of San Francisco,” Marenco said Thursday night.

The contract battle was also a win for Supervisor Vallie Brown, who the union credited with bringing the operator shortage to light.

In a statement, Brown touted the contract approval as a victory.

“For months I have been raising the alarms on the daily challenges our Muni operators face,” said Brown in a statement. “Our operators deserve a fair shake. The contract they voted on today provides significant gains for the men and women who keep our city moving.”

The months-long contract negotiations were contentious. Marenco himself was suspended from his presidency at the very beginning of talks by his own local union board, after allegations were raised by some of his political rivals. He had just won a bitter election for his presidency against allies of the previous union leadership.

“Even though I was suspended for one-third of a year,” Marenco said, “I was still able to pull through. The membership still followed.”

And in late April, Muni operators refused to work overtime on their days off, throwing a week’s worth of transit service into chaos, in an attempt to strong-arm San Francisco into offering higher raises. There were hints from inside the agency that the work action may later have reached the level of 2014’s “sick-out,” when hundreds of Muni drivers called in sick to similarly influence the bargaining table.

But threats looming over this year’s contract negotiations were left as just that — threats — because 1,000 Muni union members voted in favor of the contract Thursday. Just 331 voted against it.

Raises for Muni operators are set at 4 percent in the first year of the new contract, and 3 and a half percent for the second year and third year. Operators also will see a bump in “premium pay,” which are raises offered for various reasons, such as for expert drivers who navigate the road safely.

The union didn’t get everything they wanted, however. The process where bus and train operators can switch roles and drive for their preferred routes, called the general sign-up, will undergo a major change in favor of the agency: Whereas previously bus drivers could freely choose to become train operators and receive the training, now they must join a waitlist.

That’s likely a nod to previously known lags in Muni’s training department and may give the agency more freedom to train new operators instead of existing ones.

Despite a few snags, this is the first contract in years that was approved on the first vote of union members. Even in 2014 initial contract offers were rejected by Muni union members, which famously required former Mayor Willie Brown to come to the bargaining table to save the talks.

Marenco said his union didn’t accomplish this alone.

“(Supervisor) Vallie Brown was absolutely instrumental in bringing to light the reality the city and county of San Francisco was suffering from,” Marenco said.

Brown, who was appointed to her position by Mayor London Breed and is running for office this year, held City Hall hearings diving into Muni’s operator shortage after a San Francisco Examiner investigative report exposed the issue.

The Board of Supervisors Budget Legislative Analyst then studied the issue at Brown’s request. In its report, the BLA found Muni “has a structural Transit Operator staffing deficit” caused by a 2014 contract change, which lengthened the time it took operators to reach full pay.

And, the legislative analyst added in a warning, “the Transit Operator staffing gap does not appear to be ending soon, as the applicant pool for Transit Operator positions has been on the decline in recent years.” The numbers bear that out: There were 4,055 Muni operator applicants in 2014 but only 2,135 by the time the report was published in December 2018.

“If we want Muni to be reliable,” Brown said Thursday, “we need to invest in the people that are our frontline, our Muni operators.”

The contract, which was negotiated without too much acrimony, some insiders noted, may also be a feather in the cap of outgoing San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency head Ed Reiskin, who previously announced he would depart his role in August. Reiskin himself was involved with negotiations, and in a statement, he lauded it as a win for San Franciscans.

“Muni Operators serve the residents of San Francisco with distinction and play a vitally important role in our city, often under extremely challenging circumstances,” Reiskin said. “Today’s affirmative vote represents the strength of the new agreement and will allow us to continue our work to enhance Muni service by putting more buses and trains on the street.”

The contract still requires approval by the SFMTA Board of Directors.

joe@sfexaminer.com

A previous version of this story said the contract needed Board of Supervisors approval, instead, it needs SFMTA Board of Directors approval. It also has been updated to reflect Marenco was suspended by his own local, not the national.

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