Why we support the Elsbernd Amendment

SFMTAIf Rescue Muni stands for anything, it stands for putting the interests of Muni riders first, ahead of ideological canards, ahead of entrenched interests, and ahead of the instincts of people—so numerous in this supposedly “progressive” city—who resist change just because change rubs them the wrong way. We believe our value is in our singular focus on making Muni better, a mission we follow wherever it leads, even when it annoys people on the right or the left, or anywhere in between. This, above all, is what Rescue Muni is for.

Right now, Muni operator pay is set by a formula: it can’t be any lower than the average of the two highest-paying transit systems in the US. Before Proposition A (2007), which we supported, the rule was it couldn’t be any higher than the average of the top two. The theory was that, by making it a floor instead of a ceiling, Muni could offer higher pay in exchange for less restrictive work rules. That was an interesting idea, but it didn’t work that way in the real world. Unions didn’t take the deal, and nothing changed – operators got higher pay by the formula, without any change in work rules.

Muni is now in an unsustainable position. Its labor costs—the vast majority of Muni’s budget—are set by forces completely beyond its control. Political and economic conditions in San Francisco may have little or nothing to do with those in other cities. If pay or benefits spike up in Boston or Santa Clara County, Muni has to pay up, whether or not it can afford to, whether or not paying up means deep cuts in service. Muni has lost hundreds of millions in state funding, and MBTA in Boston hasn’t. Yet Muni’s pay structure is still lashed to MBTA’s.

The same pay formula applies to benefits; if the value of Muni’s benefits falls short of those offered by the two highest-paying systems, Muni has to cough up checks for the value of the difference.

Many in San Francisco are calling for new, dedicated revenue for Muni. We support that. But if Muni’s labor costs grow faster than any new revenue source could, we’ll be right back in the situation we’re in today. At that point we’ll have to find yet another revenue source just to stay even. People in San Francisco may approve a new tax or two to support Muni, but those who believe the voters will sign on to a new tax every couple of years are whistling past the graveyard. If Muni can’t control its costs, it won’t have any credibility when it comes, hat in hand, to the voters, and we’ll be forced to choose between steep fare increases, deep service cuts, or—more likely—both.

We’re in favor of a living wage for Muni operators—it’s a tough job, and we fully recognize that—but we oppose writing a blank check and leveraging Muni’s future to pay scales adopted by agencies which may not be like Muni at all. Many people support mass transit because they’re committed to sustainability; so are we. But sustainability includes economic sustainability, and it’s not sustainable to let labor costs balloon every year. Even if we get a major new tax to fund Muni—a big “if”—Muni can’t expand or even maintain service if its costs grow faster than its revenues.

For all these reasons, our board has voted to support Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s effort to put a charter amendment on the ballot to end the salary formula and let Muni operators negotiate for pay and benefits, like most unionized public employees (and all other unionized SFMTA employees) do. We’ve pored over the details of Muni’s finances, and we don’t think you can fix or grow Muni without it.

Some will say that the Elsbernd amendment scapegoats labor. Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t think ending the salary formula will magically fix Muni, and even if the Elsbernd amendment passes, Muni will still need to work hard to control other costs and seek out new revenue streams. But we can’t ignore the math; labor costs are the biggest item in Muni’s budget, and to pretend we can put Muni on a stable footing without controlling the rate of their growth is to ignore simple math.

Some have chanted “Chop from the Top!” It rhymes, so it must be good policy, right? Muni needs to keep its management costs under control, but the charter already gives the MTA Board the power to do that. Operator salaries are the ones over which they have no control. And while some managers at Muni make six-figure salaries, let’s keep some perspective: more operators than managers make over $100,000/year. A major reason for this is that the MTA contract requires daily overtime – even if an operator works 40 hours per week, if on some days his/her run calls for more than 8 hours, overtime is paid. (The recent concessions package rejected by the TWU members would have reformed this practice.)

And for those who want to tax the rich in San Francisco, doing so is easier said than done under Proposition 13 and its numerous heirs. Even if such a tax were imposed magically, there’s no guarantee it would keep up with the growth in Muni’s base labor costs.

The Mayor, the MTA Board, and the Board of Supervisors could make all the right decisions, and Muni would still be hostage to costs over which it has no control whatsoever. That’s an unacceptable situation. Trying to make the formula work better was a worthwhile experiment, but it failed spectacularly, and we believe firmly that you can’t fix Muni without the Elsbernd amendment.

We applaud Supervisor Elsbernd for his singular willingness to provoke the ire of powerful interest groups in the city. He’s the one who spoke up and said what we all know, that Muni can’t be fixed if it doesn’t have any control at all over its biggest cost center. He’s standing up for Muni riders, and Rescue Muni will stand with him.

Update: The measure has been given title and summary by the City Attorney’s office and will soon be on the streets for signatures.