Streetcar standoff

Muni sickout echoes earlier labor clashes and economic inequities

Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), addresses a mass meeting in San Francisco, 1965. Will San Francisco see a resurgence in the labor movement?
AP file photo

San Francisco's municipal transportation system stood still, stranding middle class riders. Riots raged throughout the city as over 1,500 streetcar drivers, known as carmen, literally fought with bottles and stones for higher wages. Left with few options, stranded San Franciscans took to other means to get to work: by foot, by bicycle, and by horse-drawn carriage.

The year was 1907, and United Railroads carmen raged against their Baltimore-based bosses in a year-long strike, in the wake of the great earthquake and fires that leveled much of the city of St. Francis. It was a clash that made last week's Muni driver sickout look tepid and tame by comparison.

It was one of the single bloodiest strikes in San Francisco history," Fred Glass, a California labor history teacher at City College of San Francisco, told us. "People were killed on both sides as the cars were run by armies of scabs."

But minus the violence, the century-old union action has eerie parallels to last week's Muni sickout, the "non-strike" in which nearly 500 Muni drivers left buses stagnant in garages across San Francisco. The similarities begin with anti-union sentiment in the mainstream press.

As the conservative-leaning San Francisco Chronicle did during this sickout, one of the city's papers-of-record, The Call, lambasted the unions and city officials alike in 1907.

"Two of the most essential public utilities, the streetcar monopoly and the telephone monopoly, are tied up," The Call wrote in a front-page editorial on May 06, 1907. "Where — and the question must suggest itself irresistibly to every man with a spoonful of brains — where does the public get off?"

the crmen's strike

A mob of strikers circle a streetcar at Turk and Fillmore, one site of violence during the 1907 carmen's strike. San Francisco Examiner file photo courtesy of Market Street Railway, home of lots of interesting SF public transportation history.

The Call offered to publish the tirades of everyday citizens. Today, we can hear the hew and cry more directly. Last week, #MuniSickOut was a top San Francisco trending Twitter hashtag, as irate tweeters pounded their thumbs on smartphones with thoughts like that of user @ReggieMuth: "Grind the city to a halt? You should pay the consequences."

Muth's sentiment was echoed by many on the Twitterverse, and angry citizens emailed city leaders as well. One constituent wrote to Sup. David Chiu's office that, "Public transportation workers held the public hostage for their greedy demand on pay and benefits."

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency proposed Muni workers pay into their pensions more than it was offering in salary increases, amounting to a pay cut of $1.10 per hour. Muni workers make on average $29.52 an hour, the sixth-highest paid transit workers in the nation, according to the SFMTA. But San Francisco also has the highest cost-of-living in the country.