The resounding rejection by Muni operators of a proposed contract underscores a deep dissatisfaction among the rank and file that city officials hope won't transform into an angry labor action that could cripple the city.
Muni operators already have authorized their union leaders to call a strike.
Union leaders, who recommended ratification of the contract, have made no indication that they would sanction a walkout, but that doesn't mean operators couldn't stage wildcat strikes, sickouts or work slowdowns on their own.
"It's a possibility," said Muni operator Chris Coghlan, who drives the 14-Mission bus line. "We don't want it to go in that direction because it could get bad really fast."
The operators' current contract, set to expire at the end of the month, prohibits strikes. Further, the City Charter states that public employee strikes are not in the public interest. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he would take "appropriate legal recourse" should a strike occur.
With 700,000 boardings a day, the Muni public transportation system is relied on not only by the people who use it, but also by the people who don't. Without the city's buses, streetcars and cable cars, downtown traffic would be gridlocked during peak morning and evening commutes. Neighborhoods where parking already is at a premium would only see conditions get worse.
"The stakes are high," said Randy Rentschler, legislative and public affairs director for the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a funding and planning agency.
Two months ago, during heated contract negotiations, Muni operators authorized their union leaders to call a strike should the talks deteriorate to the point where they feel they have no other option but to walk off the job.
Changes to work rulesLast week, Muni management and the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A negotiating team reached tentative agreement on a labor pact that calls for a three-year wage freeze, the use of part-time operators and other measures to cut overtime costs, and work rule changes that would give management more control over discipline and day-to-day operations.
But the union members voted by a 2-to-1 margin Wednesday against the deal, with 488 in favor and 994 against - an action that put the dispute in the hands of an independent arbitrator to decide the terms of the contract.
The two sides presented their cases to the arbitrator Thursday, and a decision is expected in quick order. Under rules imposed by voters last fall, the arbitrator, whose decision will be binding, must take into account the impact the new Muni contract will have on fares and service, a scenario that could favor management.
Coghlan, the operator who suggested labor action could occur, contacted The Chronicle to offer his personal views after the tentative agreement was voted down. The opposition wasn't over money, he said, but about changes to the work rules and what he described as a widespread feeling among the operators that they are disrespected by management and underappreciated and misunderstood by the public.
"When you have management that hates you, there is no way you can allow yourself to be put in that situation," Coghlan said. "We are not greedy. We are hardworking people who demand respect while the politicians and media constantly attack us."
Tom Nolan, chairman of the Municipal Transportation Agency, said it is not out to vilify the operators but wants them to agree to participate in sacrifices to put Muni on more solid financial footing and to improve service.
He said once the contract dispute is resolved, he plans to visit the operators at the bus and rail yards.Last fall, city voters approved Proposition G, an initiative measure that gave management considerably more clout in negotiations by eliminating the City Charter provision that guaranteed Muni operators the second-highest pay in the country, which is now $29.52 an hour. The pay formula was adopted four decades ago with the aim of maintaining labor peace with Muni operators, who now number about 2,200.
The architects of Prop. G said they wanted to give Muni management the tools to run a more efficient system to improve service. The initiative landed on the ballot after operators twice rebuffed their union leaders and voted down cost-saving concessions requested by city officials to help balance the budget.
Union spokesman Jamie Horwitz said the feeling of being scapegoated for Muni's problems runs deep among the rank and file. He said had voters been presented with a referendum on Muni management, "They would have voted to throw the bums out."
No matter what the arbitrator decides, Horwitz expects the dispute ultimately to be resolved in court. The union filed suit in March to stop implementation of Prop. G, and it has asked federal labor and transportation officials to find a provision requiring the arbitrator to consider the effect of the proposed agreement on transit service in violation of transit funding laws.
But it may first get tested in the court of public opinion in a city with a long history of labor support.
Serving the publicMayor Ed Lee said the operators who voted against the tentative agreement made the wrong choice. He is now looking at the arbitration process as the built-in "safety valve" to settle the disagreement.
The mayor said he didn't want to dismiss the concerns of operators who feel underappreciated, but he argued they have to understand their role as city employees who provide an important service.
"They need to know that their bosses are the residents of San Francisco. They are my bosses, and as a public servant, I understand that," Lee said Thursday. "I will be attending the funeral today for two San Francisco firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of serving the public. That is our job, to serve the public."
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