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San Francisco Transit Fight

category north america / mexico | miscellaneous | news report author Wednesday September 07, 2005 09:19author by Tom Wetzelauthor email info at workersolidarity dot org Report this post to the editors

Despite heavy police presence at major bus transfer points, at least a
couple thousand passengers rode the buses for free in San Francisco on
Thursday, September 1st - the opening day of a fare strike in North
America's most bus-intensive city. In the days leading up to September
1st,
more than 50 people were actively organizing for the fare strike, with new
groups endorsing the effort in the last week. More than 20,000 leaflets
had been distributed and 10,000 stickers were attached to bus shelters and
poles throughout the city - in Spanish and Chinese as well as English.

San Francisco Transit Fight
By Tom Wetzel

Despite heavy police presence at major bus transfer points, at least a
couple thousand passengers rode the buses for free in San Francisco on
Thursday, September 1st - the opening day of a fare strike in North
America's most bus-intensive city. In the days leading up to September
1st,
more than 50 people were actively organizing for the fare strike, with new
groups endorsing the effort in the last week. More than 20,000 leaflets
had been distributed and 10,000 stickers were attached to bus shelters and
poles throughout the city - in Spanish and Chinese as well as English.

Muni - San Francisco's city-owned bus and streetcar network - raised its
adult cash fare to $1.50 as of September 1st. This is the second hike in
two years, representing an increase of 50 percent since 2003. Although
organized pressure from community groups forced Muni management to back
down on a proposal to raise the monthly pass, 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. Muni
never adequately advertised the weekly pass and has now raised it
from $12 to $15.

Muni is also proposing to slash service on many lines, starting September
24th. Layoff notices were issued earlier in the year to 150 drivers. Muni
management is eliminating 83 of these jobs through early retirement. This
means a loss of good-paying unionized jobs. For the rest of the job cuts,
they're firing all of the part-timers. The fare strike has three demands:
No fare hike, no service cuts, no layoffs.

Muni's bus network is very intensively used. In a typical year there are an
average of 270 public transit rides for every resident in San Francisco -
the same level of transit-dependency as New York City. But in San Francisco
three-fourths of the rides are on the electric and diesel buses
that ply the city's streets. There are already standing loads on many
lines at
various times throughout the day. Loss of drivers will lead to overcrowding,
with 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 arrive. 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 to the stress of the
driver's job.

On the morning of September 1st, the fare strike groups concentrated most
of their people at about eight major nodes in the Muni bus network, with
banners, strike placards, bullhorns and leaflets. About half of these
nodes were on the Mission-Van Ness corridor. Two of these sites were 16th
and Mission and 24th and Mission 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 operations. During the last two weeks of organizing, the day
laborers had gotten involved in the fare strike campaign and had taken
over the tabling and leafleting on Mission Street and other areas in the
city with large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Support for the
fare strike was particularly strong in the Mission District.

Muni targeted the Mission District for a heavy show of force on September
1st. When I got to 16th and Mission at 8AM, there were about 20 cops,
virtually the entire Muni fare inspector force, and a squad of Muni
"security assistants" - temporarily employed young people, mainly
African-American, outfitted in bright green vests. Paunchy middle-aged
Muni bosses had gotten out of their offices and were overseeing the
operation. Gerardo, one of the day laborers, told me he had coaxed several
crowds of passengers to get on buses for free before the cops arrived.

In recent years Muni has had a practice and policy of permitting pass and
transfer holders to enter the buses through the rear doors. However, in
the last couple days before the fare strike, Muni applied stickers with a
large red "Stop" sign to the back doors, with instructions to use the
front door. This will have the effect of slowing down bus service. The
main job of the security assistants was to herd passengers away from the
rear doors. This led to an incident at 16th and Mission where a female
security assistant illegally grabbed a man by his pants as he was
entering through the rear door, resulting in a physical altercation. The
passenger was hauled off the bus and taken to jail, charged with assault.

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,
and reproduced on the same flimsy newsprint. These transfer-shaped
leaflets were very popular with riders. They felt more comfortable with
something they could flash to the drivers.

The police claim this is illegal counterfeiting but fare strike advocates
claim it is merely a leaflet, and therefore constitutionally protected
free speech. At 24th and Mission, Moe, a lawyer with the fare strike team,
smiled at the cops and challenged them to issue him a citation for
passing out the transfer-shaped leaflets. Moe wants to take this to court.
Faced with a lawyer, the police backed down. Eventually a Muni fare
inspector wrote Moe a citation.

Deploying heavy security where fare strike groups were visibly concentrated
was intended to intimidate both drivers and riders from participating in the
fare strike. Meanwhile, small teams of fare strike activists were 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 with
them. Their hope is that people will get comfortable with the idea and then
do it on their own.

The corporate media parroted the Muni management party line in downplaying
the fare strike. The S.F. Chronicle claimed they did a "random check" on a
number of lines and found "only a handful" of fare strike participants.
On a transit system that handles over 700,000 rides every weekday, a
handful in a small sample translates into a significant number of people.

The Corporate Free Ride

With nearly 50 million square feet of office space compacted into San
Francisco's city center, the structure and employment pattern of San
Francisco is very downtown-centered. In the early '70s, when the BART
regional metro was being built, San Francisco changed its downtown zoning
to discourage parking. Allowing scarce downtown space for lower-value
parking structures would take away space from highly profitable office and
retail uses. The vast capital value of downtown as a corporate
headquarters and financial center and major retail center depends heavily
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 building owners
and corporations pay nothing special for this service which is essential
to their profit making. Corporations are externalization machines - they
systematically work to shift their costs onto others. In this case, they
work to shift the cost of the public transit service onto the riders
and the government.

In 1994 a broad-based coalition of community groups, working with liberal
Supervisor Sue Bierman, rattled this status quo when they got
Proposition O on the ballot. Prop O would have taken the first steps to
set up a downtown transit assessment district, to force the downtown
building owners to pay for Muni operations. However, Prop O was defeated
at the polls through a massive disinformation campaign, financed by the
Shorenstein 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-'90s when Muni
suffered through five years with 20 percent of the driver and
mechanicpositions left vacant. This generated problems of overcrowding
and unreliability. To prevent another push to tax the downtown elite for
Muni, the business elite moved pro-actively to impose 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
free the coordinator class cadres - Muni managers and professional staff -
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 very broad-based ridership of Muni, combined with San Francisco's
ongoing gentrification, mean that there is 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. The politics of the all-white
leadership of this organization range from mainstream liberal to
neo-liberal. Rescue Muni has supported both of the Muni fare hikes in 2003
2005.

Rescue Muni 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 sort of 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 its budget. The MTA
Board - politically connected lay people appointed by the Mayor - are in
charge. Without their own source of information, they are putty in the
hands of the Muni managerial staff.

Management empire building has been one result of Prop E. While cooking up
ambitious expansion plans, much of the professional staff were moved out of
rent-free, city-owned office space into expensive digs on Market Street,
paying a 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 structural 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
bloated coordinator hierarchy at Muni is a source of inefficiency. One
of my neighbors, a former operator who now works as a street supervisor,
believes the highly paid top brass aren't even needed. "All we need to
run the system," he tells me, "are the drivers, maintenance people,
and" street supervisors like himself.

This year's struggle on Muni began in February with Muni management
announcing another projected deficit. To fill the $57 million hole in
the budget, the initial management 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 protests did gain some concessions. Muni management backed off on
their proposals for a hike to price of the monthly pass and charges for
transfers, and reduced the proposed fare hike to $1.50. On the other hand,
it's possible that the more extreme management proposals were there to
give
them room for making concessions. Moreover, the plan approved by the MTA
Board includes widespread cuts in service on many bus lines.

The Coalition's focus then shifted to the Board of Supervisors, to get the
Supervisors to overrule the proposed fare hike, service cuts and layoffs.
To do this, they'd need 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 en masse to lobby the Supervisors in groups. In July, however, the
Supervisors voted 8 to 3 to endorse the Muni management proposals for a
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.socialstrike.net), initiated by two anarchist
groups. Some time later, another group came together under the name Muni
Fare Strike (www.munifarestrike.net). Despite personal and political
differences, the two groups were able to cooperate and coordinate their
efforts during the last weeks leading up to the onset of the fare strike
on September 1st.

In the late '70s transit workers in Turin, Italy, carried out a type of
on-the-job strike. The transit workers had their own issues but there were
also popular demands for a lower transit fare. The workers continued to
run the vehicles while refusing to collect fares, thus building solidarity
with the riders. At the time, British libertarian Marxist writer Adam
Cornford coined the phrase "social strike" to refer to this type of worker
action where the benefit of their work is still provided to the consumer.
The young anarchists who formed Muni Social Strike wanted to encourage
this type of driver/rider alliance in San Francisco. For the first
several months, the Social Strike group focused its efforts on outreach
to the drivers.

The great majority of Muni drivers are workers of color. The 2000-member
drivers' union, Transport Workers Union Local 250A, includes the largest
group of unionized African-American workers in San Francisco. The Social
Strike group were able to hook up with the Drivers Action Committee (DAC) -
a group of 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, DAC were 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, it would not be possible for
Muni to implement its proposed service cuts.

On June 17th, Bari McGruder and Victor Grayson, two African-American bus
drivers who are active with DAC, were quoted in the S.F. Examiner to the
effect that the leadership of TWU Local 250A are "in bed with management."
They were quoted as calling for a one-day walkout. Grayson - a former Black
Panther Party member in his 50s - says that his stance is motivated by
"solidarity with the riders." He views the people who ride his bus as "just
ordinary working people like me." He sees the current Muni struggle as part
of a larger conflict with the "corporate rich."

The Examiner quotes provided the executive board of Local 250A with a
pretext to clamp down against their opponents. McGruder and Grayson were
brought up on charges by the executive board, fined $1,500 each, and
suspended from the union for three 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 signup for
the reduced-service schedules has apparently gone off without disruption,
according to knowledgeable sources.

Attitudes of drivers during the fare strike varied. Some drivers were
playing by the Muni 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, ready to pay, the driver told them
"Why pay? Today is the fare strike." In my own experience, only one out of
six drivers have demanded that I pay since the beginning of the fare strike.

The fare strike requires intensive work by dozens of activists. It's not
clear how long they can keep this up. Muni management is hoping to ride
out the storm. If more riders could be brought into an organized movement,
there would be more people to keep the movement going. And what about the
longer run? If the consciousness-raising and momentum of the fare strike
campaign were used to build a mass riders' organization controlled by its
members - a democratic Muni riders' union (rooted especially in the
multi-racial working class neighborhoods on the east side of the city) -
the struggle could be continued by other means after the fare strike
(marches, jamming government meetings, etc). At least a militant
minority of Muni riders would have an organizational vehicle through
which to self-manage their on-going struggle with Muni management, city
leaders, and the downtown elite. The pressure could be maintained.
But thus far there has been no effort towards the building of a
member-controlled Muni riders' union.

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