San Francisco Transit Fight


Riders,
don’t pay. Drivers, don’t collect.” That’s the
slogan on tens of thousands of leaflets—in Spanish, Chinese,
and English—distributed in the campaign for the transit fare
strike in San Francisco. 


Muni,
San Francisco’s bus and streetcar system, raised its adult
cash fare to $1.50 as of September 1. This is an increase of 50
percent since 2003. Muni also raised the discount youth/senior/disabled
fare by 40 percent and eliminated the token discount. On September
24, Muni began the second phase of its austerity measures with service
cuts on most of the bus lines. To implement this, layoff notices
were issued earlier in the year to 150 drivers. Muni management
eliminated 83 of these jobs through early retirement. This meant
a loss of good-paying unionized jobs. For the rest of the job cuts,
they fired all of the part-timers. 


Two
days before the service cuts, fare strike groups and the Coalition
for Transit Justice held a press conference and speak out at the
16th and Mission BART station plaza. Speakers from the day laborers,
St. Peter’s Housing Committee, the Chinese Progressive Association,
and other groups attacked the impending service cuts and supported
the fare strike. 


In
a typical year there are an average of 270 public transit rides
for every resident in San Francisco—the same level of transit
usage as New York City. But in San Francisco three-fourths of the
rides are on electric and diesel buses. There are standing loads
on many bus lines at various times of day. Loss of drivers will
lead to people standing in stairwells and drivers passing people
up at stops. People will be late for work. Low-income people often
work at jobs where they are not given much slack about when they
can show up. Fare strike advocates say that these cuts in service
and hikes in the fare are an attack on the poor, a regressive tax
on those least able to pay. More crowding and more rider complaints
will also add stress for the drivers. Thus the fare strikers have
three demands: no fare hike, no service cuts, no layoffs. 


More
than 50 people actively organized for the fare strike, with new
groups endorsing the effort. At least 10,000 stickers were attached
to poles and bus shelters throughout the city. On the morning of
September 1, the fare strike groups concentrated most of their people
at about eight major nodes in the Muni bus network in the Mission
District’s “main street” retail center—the heart
of San Francisco’s Latino community. With over 85,000 rides
on a typical weekday, Mission-Van Ness is one of the world’s
busiest bus corridors. During the last two weeks of organizing,
day laborers had gotten involved in the fare strike campaign and
had taken over the tabling and leafleting areas in the city with
large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants. 


Concentrating
pickets and banners at key locations gave the fare strike visibility,
but it also attracted a heavy security response—about 20 cops,
virtually the entire Muni inspector force, and a squad of Muni “security
assistants,” i.e., temporarily employed young people, mainly
African Americans, outfitted in bright green vests. 


Meanwhile,
small teams of fare strike activists were also surfing the bus lines
in various neighborhoods. They’d get off at a busy stop and
then lead by example, bringing on groups of people to ride for free.
Their hope was that people would get comfortable with the idea and
then do it on their own. 


Fare
strike advocates distributed about 8,000 leaflets with the demands
of the fare strike, but in the shape and graphic style of a Muni
bus transfer. The police claimed this was illegal counterfeiting. 


At
least a few thousand passengers rode the buses for free, despite
the heavy police presence. Revenue reports obtained from Muni indicate
that the daily cash flow to Muni on the first two weekdays of the
fare strike dropped to $150,000 from an average of $169,000 in the
days prior to the strike. 


The
Corporate Free Ride 


With
nearly 50 million square feet of office space in San Francisco’s
city center, the employment pattern of San Francisco is downtown-centered.
The vast capital value of downtown as a corporate headquarters and
financial and retail center greatly depends on Muni—to deposit
shoppers at downtown stores and carry the thousands of employees
to their jobs. About two-thirds of the people who reach downtown
on a given weekday arrive by public transit. But downtown corporations
pay nothing special for this. 






In 1994 a coalition
of community groups, working with liberal supervisor Sue Bierman,
got Proposition O on the ballot. Prop O would have taken steps to
set up a downtown transit assessment district to force building
owners to pay for Muni operations. However, Prop O was defeated
at the polls through a massive disinformation campaign financed
by the Shoren- stein Company—the largest office building owner
in downtown—and the Building Owners and Managers Association. 



Muni’s
structural deficit first became evident in the mid-1990s when city
leaders left 20 percent of the driver and mechanic positions vacant
for 5 years. Overcrowding and unreliability were the result. To
prevent an increase in their taxes, the downtown elite imposed their
own solution to the structural deficit. The Chamber of Commerce
began floating the idea of taking control of Muni away from the
Board of Supervisors (the city council) and handing it over to an
“independent” agency. The aim was to solve the deficit
by attacking the unions and forcing the riders to pay more. In 1998,
SPUR (a business-oriented think tank) worked out a specific proposal,
but had a hard time gaining much acceptance for it. 


The
broad-based ridership of Muni, combined with San Francisco’s
ongoing gentrification, meant that there was a substantial minority
of professional and business people who ride Muni. In 1998 a group
of white professionals used the deteriorated condition of transit
service to build a riders organization, called Rescue Muni. Rescue
Muni supported the fare hikes in 2003 and 2005 and provided a mass
base for SPUR’s plan for “fixing” Muni, which was
put on the ballot in 1998 as Proposition E. Prop E provided no new
funding for Muni, but created the independent agency the downtown
elite were looking for, called the Municipal Transportation Agency
(MTA). With the local labor movement and political left asleep at
the switch, Prop E was approved with little public debate. Under
Prop E, the supervisors have no line-item control over Muni and
the MTA Board is in charge. 


Management
empire building has been one result of Prop E. While cooking up
ambitious expansion plans, much of the professional staff was moved
out of rent-free, city-owned office space into expensive digs on
Market Street, paying rent of $53 a square foot. For a few years
during the dot-com boom, Muni’s structural deficit was hidden,
as the city was rolling in cash. Even after the deficit re-appeared
with the 2001 recession, top management continued to give substantial
bonuses to scores of professionals and managers making over $100,000
a year. 


This
year’s struggle began in February with Muni announcing a projected
$57 million deficit. Management’s initial proposal was a huge
attack on the riders—a $1.75 fare, another hike to the $45
monthly pass, and charges for transfers. Tenant organizers, employed
by local non-profits, initiated a Coalition for Transit Justice
to fight back. With endorsements from over 35 community groups,
the Coalition mobilized people to come out to MTA Board hearings
to protest the proposed fare hikes and service cuts. 


The
Coalition did win some concessions. Muni management backed off on
their proposals for a hike to the price of the monthly pass and
charges for transfers, and reduced the proposed fare hike to $1.50.
However, many low-income people have a hard time getting together
the cash to buy the monthly pass. The weekly pass was a more financially
accessible discount option for them. The fare hike would raise this
from $12 to $15. 


The
Coalition then tried to get the supervisors to overrule the MTA
Board. To do this, they needed eight votes to reject the entire
MTA budget. One of the Coalition’s groups, Families in SROs—a
group of Asian women and Latinas who live in residence hotels with
their kids—trooped to city hall to lobby the supervisors. In
July, however, the supervisors voted 8 to 3 to endorse the Muni
fare hike, service cuts, and layoffs. 






This left Muni riders
with no recourse but collective direct action. The proposal for
a fare strike was initiated by groups of anti-capitalist radicals
back in March. The first of these groups to come together was Muni
Social Strike (www.social strike.net). Some time later, another
group came together under the name Muni Fare Strike (www.munifarestrike.net).
Despite personal and political differences, the two groups have
been able to cooperate and coordinate their efforts. 



The
2,000-member drivers’ union, Transport Workers Union Local
250A—largely workers of color—includes the largest group
of unionized African American workers in San Francisco. The Social
Strike group was able to hook up with the Drivers Action Committee
(DAC)—about 40 dissident members of Local 250A. Several African
American bus drivers from DAC attended “town hall” meetings
called by Social Strike to help further a driver/rider alliance.
 


In
late April the DAC was able to get a Local 250A union meeting to
endorse a mass refusal to cooperate with the next Muni general signup.
In a general signup, drivers put in their preferences for which
run they want. If the drivers refused to cooperate with the signup,
Muni couldn’t implement its proposed service cuts. 


On
June 17 Bari McGruder and Victor Grayson, two African American bus
drivers active in DAC, were quoted in the San Francisco Examiner
to the effect that the leadership of TWU Local 250A was “in
bed with management.” They were quoted as calling for a one-day
walkout. Grayson sees the current Muni struggle as part of a larger
conflict with the “corporate rich.” 


Because
of these quotes, McGruder and Grayson were brought up on charges
by the executive board of Local 250A, fined $1,500 each, and suspended
from the union for 3 years. This action threw the dissidents in
the union on the defensive. It appears that the union’s April
call for non-cooperation with the general signup wasn’t enforced,
as the sign up for the reduced service schedules has apparently
gone without disruption, according to knowledgeable sources. 


Attitudes
of drivers during the fare strike have varied. Some drivers have
played by the management game plan, refusing to move the bus if
people didn’t pay. But this seemed to be a small minority.
As some Muni drivers told us, the union contract only requires the
drivers to tell people what the fare is. In one incident, when an
activist announced he was on fare strike, the driver said, “The
fare is $1.50. You know the rules.” She then stared straight
ahead, smiling as he moved into the bus without paying. On another
occasion, when a group of people got on the bus with money in their
hands, the driver told them, “Why pay? Today is the fare strike.”
Activists also reported that some drivers put their hands over the
fare box to encourage non-payment by riders. 


The
fare strike requires intensive work by dozens of activists. As of
this writing in early October, the strike has already lost momentum
as activists pursue other claims on their time. Muni management
is hoping to ride out the storm. A weakness of the fare strike has
been the absence of a broader organizational framework to bring
together riders who might want to be involved in the fight at some
level. 


In
the long run, if the consciousness-raising of the fare strike campaign
were used to build a mass riders’ organization controlled by
its members—a democratic Muni riders’ union—the struggle
could be continued by other means after the fare strike (marches,
jamming government meetings, etc.). At least a militant minority
of working class Muni riders would have an organizational vehicle
through which to self-manage their ongoing struggle with Muni management
and the downtown elite. The pressure could be maintained. But an
effort to form a Muni riders’ union has not yet gotten off
the ground.




Tom Wetzel has
worked as a typesetter, college teacher, and technical writer. He’s
been an activist since the late 1960s, mainly on labor, housing, and
public transit issues. He is currently president of the San Francisco
Community Land Trust.