Streetcar standoff - Page 2

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

Transit Workers Union Local 250-A President Eric Williams told us most Muni drivers were long ago priced out of living in San Francisco. "The only members that live inside the city are those who purchased a home 20 or so years ago," he told us. "The majority of our members live outside the city."

Muni workers' wages used to be mandated to be the second-highest in the nation. But in 2010 voters passed Proposition G, requiring Muni worker wages be negotiated and subjected to binding arbitration that the union says is skewed in the city's favor. But Prop. G and the city charter also prevents workers from striking, hence the drivers calling in sick en masse.

By modern standards the Muni sickout was labeled extreme, by the Chronicle and others. San Franciscans of 1907 feared the URR carmen's strike for another reason: The workers were ready to die for their cause. Market Street Railway and issues of The Call recalled the strike christened on a day known as Bloody Tuesday.

On May 07, 1907, a mob of URR carmen formed outside the Turk and Fillmore carbarn. At 3:25pm, six streetcars emerged, greeted by a hail of sticks and stones from the strikers. The cars were driven by scabs who crossed the picket lines. More dangerously, they were also manned by gunmen at the behest of the infamous URR strikebreaker, James Farley.

A second pelting of sticks and stones drew action: Farley and his men opened fire on the crowd. Bullets sprayed wildly into nearby police and union men alike. The strikers ran for cover and fired back. A gun battle echoed past what is now a Bi-Rite grocery, ending only when the strikers lacked the ammo to carry on.

"CAR STRIKE LEADS TO BLOOD" read The Call's headline on Wednesday, May 08, 1907. The first to die was 19-year-old James Walsh, a teamster who was shot through the head. Ultimately, two died and 20 were injured that day. The strikers would bear six fatalities by 1908.

BLOODY TUESDAY "The Call" -- May 08 by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

San Francisco is not only experiencing transit strike deja vu, but a repeat of the economic circumstances around the historical Bloody Tuesday, with a wealth gap approaching historic highs. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012 the top 1 percent of Americans took home about 22 percent of the nation's wealth, and the bottom 90 percent of the country took home less than 50 percent of the nation's wealth.

A look at a graph of income inequality shows two giant spikes of the 1 percent's massive wealth, one spire in the modern era, and another spire planted firmly in the gilded era of the early 1900s, altered only by the Great Depression and the leveling economic policies adopted to address it.

"We're back to the level of inequality that existed at that time now," Glass said. "To me that suggests there's the potential for that kind of explosive conflict between classes."