The pummeling of SF Labor

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With five supervisorial seats open and only one incumbent running, the Labor Council has had a tough time picking the right pro-labor candidates. The easy choices were incumbent Carmen Chu in District 4, with no opposition, and Raphael Mandelman, an exceptionally promising newcomer in District 8. But Janet Reilly in District 2 opposes the Labor Council's revenue measures. In District 6, where long-time activist Deborah Walker has been endorsed, and in District 8, where Malia Cohen and Chris Jackson are #1 and #2, there are a multitude of candidates, many of them labor friendly.

It's not an easy year.

Prop. B on San Francisco's November election ballot confronts the city's working people and their unions with an unprecedented challenge. The measure, sponsored by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, would severely weaken public employee unions and undoubtedly lead to other serious attacks on workers and unions in private as well as public employment nationwide.

The proposition is by no means the only dangerously anti-labor measure on the ballot, but it 's the worst from labor's point of view, as it very well should be. It's a prime example of the public-employee bashing that's become a favorite theme in election campaigns everywhere and, if passed, would set a clear national precedent.

Actually, Prop. B might better be described as a pummeling rather than bashing - and one coming, furthermore, just a few months after city employees took a voluntary $250 million pay cut. Prop. B would steeply raise the employees' contributions to their pensions unilaterally and prohibit bargaining on the issue in the future as well.

It would arbitrarily lower city contributions to the employees' health plans, especially dependent care. What employees pay for health care coverage for children and other dependents would be as much as doubled.

The steep rise in the employees' share of their health care coverage could quite possibly force families to drop city coverage and try to get cheaper coverage on their own. That, of course, is a primary goal of the corporate anti-labor forces and others who seek to balance the budgets of public entities on the backs of their employees.

So what if workers can't afford to take the kids to the doctor.  Cutting taxes and balancing budgets is a lot more important. Besides, there's always the emergency room and charity.

But wait! There are yet more major Prop. B flaws. For example: If city health care coverage is changed by increasing the premiums paid by employees, as the proposition requires, the city Health Service system (HSS) would have to forfeit new $23 million-a-year federal grants intended to reduce premiums for employees and retirees covered by the HSS. The system includes, not just city employees, but also school and community college district and SF court system employees and retirees.

There's even more, much more than enough to energize labor's troops. They are angry. Very angry. Unions citywide have at least temporarily set aside their sometimes considerable differences and feuding over tactics, jurisdictions and other matters. They've come together tightly along with a substantial number of labor's Democratic Party allies to oppose Prop. B.

And watch out for Prop. G. It's another favorite of the anti-union, anti-public employee crowd, led in this case by Sean Elsbernd, a very politically ambitious member of the SF Board of Supervisors.

Elsbernd and friends claim their intent is to "fix the Muni," one of the nation's most complex transit systems. The Municipal Railway, overseen by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), is indeed badly in need of fixing. But the principal blame for that does not rest with Muni's bus and streetcar operators - most of them people of color - as proponents of Prop. G claim. Most of the blame rests with Muni's overpaid managers, headed by $336,000-a-year executive director and CEO Nathaniel Ford.

As President Irwin Lum of the Muni operator's union said in a Guardian interview,  "Muni needs to be changed from the top to the bottom." He sees Muni's problem as mainly a lack of resources and the political will to pursue them.  Muni officials might also avoid lots of problems if they'd deign to consult regularly with community groups and their leaders on their transit needs.

The public rightly complains of buses not arriving on time, of being passed up while waiting at bus stops, of grumpy drivers and of other certainly legitimate matters.  Naturally, they blame the drivers. But drivers do not make schedules. Under pressure to keep to the schedules made by others, they sometimes speed by waiting passengers. Sometimes they're slowed by heavy traffic, sometimes by problems with faulty, broken-down down buses or slowed by having to deal with violent passengers. Sometimes, managers making out the schedules don't properly anticipate such probable delays.

Oh, yes, those grumpy drivers.

Wouldn't you be grumpy if you had to work a full shift without going to the bathroom? If you had to listen to loud complaints from unruly passengers who sometimes got rough with you and each other?  If you had to weave through heavy traffic for hours at a time? If you had to time your work to unrealistic schedules you had nothing to do with making?

It's not the drivers who are in charge of replacing badly worn buses and streetcar tracks and equipment, not the drivers who are in charge of negotiating with Muni suppliers for a reduction in ever-escalating fuel prices and other costs. In short, it's not the drivers who run Muni - though Muni, of course, could not run without them.

So, what do Elsbernd and his anti-labor cohorts want to do to the Muni's invaluable workers? Here's the deal:

The City Charter now requires that Muni operators be paid at least as much as the average salary of operators at the two highest paying similar transit systems in the country.  And if benefits granted Muni operators are worth less than those of operators at similar transit systems, the difference is paid to the operators from a trust fund established for that purpose.

Under Prop. G, operators' pay and benefits would be set by bargaining between union and MTA representatives. If they couldn't agree, the dispute would be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decision would be binding.

The arbitrator would be required to consider the possible impact of disputed proposals on Muni fares and services. But though all other city unions are also subject to arbitration, there's no requirement that the arbitrator consider how their proposals would affect the services provided by the union's members - an unusual requirement that's virtually unheard of elsewhere.

Prop. G backers presumably see the proposition as a step toward their goal of being able to set, change or eliminate Muni work rules without bothering to consult workers or their unions. They are, you might say, "unilateralists."

 Taking on Muni operators is only part of Supervisor Elsbernd's anti-labor romp. He's also sponsoring Prop.  F, a deceptively simple charter amendment that would seriously impact the 105,000 members of the Health Service System. It's a stealth proposition, difficult to understand and explain, and thus often brushed aside as a minor ballot measure of no particular consequence.

But Prop. F is capable of doing major long-term damage to HSS members by weakening their position in negotiating with powerful health insurers such as Blue Shield on the size of the premiums HSS members have to pay for coverage and the benefits they receive.

All politicians stretch the truth. It's part of their game. You needn't look further than Elsbernd for evidence of that.  He actually claims he put Prop. F on the ballot strictly to save the Health Service System money by eliminating two of the four elections in which HSS members vote for representatives on the HSS Board. This seemingly small change would eliminate the overlapping terms that provide the continuity essential to successful negotiations with health insurers.

The savings would average a mere $30,000 a year, and would not even be available until 2016. Nor is there a guarantee that any of the money would go to the HSS. $30,000? What's the real motive here?

As for the rest of San Francisco's ballot measures and candidates, union supporters could hardly do better than to follow the recommendations of the AFL-CIO's local Labor Council, which almost invariably backs the propositions most likely to be labor-friendly and opposes those that are not. This time, the Labor Council is saying "no" to those decidedly unfriendly Propositions B, G and F.

And don't forget Props. J, K and N. Hotel workers and others are supporting Prop. J, which is meant to stop the travel industry practice of using online hotel booking to avoid paying SF's hotel tax. Prop. J also would increase the city's hotel tax for the first time in 14 years in order to raise some most welcome revenue for the city's general fund.

However, Prop. K - introduced by Mayor Newsom - could stand in the way. Since Prop. K makes no change in the hotel tax rate, apparently it's intended to confuse and distract the voters so they won't approve Prop. J.

The other major revenue measure strongly supported by labor - Proposition N - would increase the city's transfer tax rate on the sale of property worth more than $5 million from 1.5 percent now to a range of 2 to 2 ½ percent for a property worth $10 million or more. This would also generate millions for the city's general fund.

Rarely has so much been at stake for San Francisco's working people and their unions.

Dick Meister, former Labor Editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV, has covered labor and politics for a half-century, Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Comments

Tired calls for "workers solidarity" are falling on deaf ears when everyone else is taking a pay cut.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

San Francisco Resident Here: Ok, I've paid 100% of my own medical insurance for about 20 years now, and I've paid 100% of my daughter's medical insurance for the entire18 years of her life thus far. Why do I not have sympathy for folks who have gotten free health insurance and might soon ONLY have to contribute something toward that of their family members?

Posted by Eurosnbaht on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

You pay 100%. What. Are you independently wealthy? Do you work at all? Why don't you have health insurance through your employer? You should. That's the failure of single payer health care in this country. Why do you want to take it out on city workers? Do you really think they do nothing at all? Stop falling for the politics of jealousy. It's the oldest trick in the book created by the billionaires that want to make sure they can keep all their money rather than spending a few million on health care for their employees. Wake up!

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

It's not about "taking it out" on city workers. It's about one person who pays 100% of her own health care have to pay for a portion of someone else's health care too. I agree, single payer would be the best solution. Meanwhile, there needs to be some degree of fairness. Nearly all employers used to pay 100% before the cost of healthcare started flying out of control. If you want to attack anyone, attack big pharma.

Posted by guest on Oct. 09, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

Agreed. There is no reason for single 26 year olds to pay NOTHING for their insurance as fire fighters and EMTs. Its true! Just look at the SF City and County health plan monthly rates for single employees in the fire and police department. A joke! AND, they only contribute 7% to their retirement each month! When everyone else has to either privately save through Fidelity, Charles Schwab and ING witholding 15% of their paychecks with no matching, or only get matched at 5% with 401K, there is no reason why each employee cannot raise that to a 10% person save and one percent less from the city/county. IT IS STILL PRE-TAX! Someone in their union has convinced them they will each pay $8,000 a year more per employee for health insurance alone. This is nuts and scare tactic. AND, I'm tired of the arguement "why does everyone always dig into EMS, Fire and Police pockets when no one else gets touched?" Well, if they paid any attention to the rest of the state of California, everyone else HAS already had their pockets dug into, jobs completely gone, no benefits, unemployement being threatened to be seized. ARE YOU JOKING! These pensions have remained untouched for a long enough time. And no one is taking what is already invested away from the accounts. It is only to further require more heavily weighted participant investing. IF THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE PAYING TAXES FROM NO JOBS, THERE ARE NO TAX REVENUE, AND NO REVENUE MEANS NOTHING TO PAY YOUR SALARIES! This is basic. Return revenue to everyone who has paid these ridiculous benefits for years, far longer than any 30 year old public service employee has held their 3 day a week position, working 24 hours on an engine running two calls.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 19, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

More Prop B nonsense...SF residents are not dopes- I just read they are the second most educated...!

..." It's a prime example of the public-employee bashing that's become a favorite theme in election campaigns everywhere and, if passed, would set a clear national precedent."

It has nothing to with anything other than SF employee/retiree benefit costs rising $800 million a year over the next five years and Adachi's proposal only covers 15% of it. How do you propose paying for this increase? By saying nothing, you are are saying it should come from cuts in City services.

..."Actually, Prop. B might better be described as a pummeling rather than bashing - and one coming, furthermore, just a few months after city employees took a voluntary $250 million pay cut. Prop. B would steeply raise the employees' contributions to their pensions unilaterally and prohibit bargaining on the issue in the future as well."

You do realize Prop B doesn't kick in until after the $250 million largely expires- right...? Have you read Prop B? "Prohibit bargaining on the issue" - you mean like the charter amendement that guaranteed the pay raises for Muni Operators?

"...The steep rise in the employees' share of their health care coverage could quite possibly force families to drop city coverage and try to get cheaper coverage on their own. That, of course, is a primary goal of the corporate anti-labor forces and others who seek to balance the budgets of public entities on the backs of their employees.."

So City employees who currently pay $228 for their entire family for Kaiser are going to drop coverage after having to pay $448? Or from $545 to $765 on Blue Shield? Uh, no.
On the backs of employees...? It's only 15% of the total benefit cost increase.

"...But wait! There are yet more major Prop. B flaws. For example: If city health care coverage is changed by increasing the premiums paid by employees, as the proposition requires, the city Health Service system (HSS) would have to forfeit new $23 million-a-year federal grants intended to reduce premiums for employees and retirees covered by the HSS..."

Good gawd. This is federal money. Can you produce a quote from a federal official, any federal official that this is true? Even HSS says it "may jeopardize" the funding which is not a "a-year" thing..

Posted by CJFlowers on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

But then again, CJFlowers, probably doesn't believe that it is me!

Posted by Barack Obama on Oct. 02, 2010 @ 11:45 am

Apparently Dick Meister has never run a business or done basic math.

It's not that SF wants to crush labor. SF is just looking at the enormous long term bill and seeing that it's:

a.) not sustainable
b.) pushing the bill onto future generations/residents. This is inherently unfair. Kicking the can to later generations may seem easy but SF residents have a better sense of fairness
c.) not fair that taxpayers fund a small group (labor)'s bills for the rest of their natural lives
d.) recognize that high taxes and anti-business attitude chases businesses away

I have NO DOUBT that Dick Meister would go to court if someone ran over his dog, stole private property, squatted in his home, etc. He would go to court and demand fair compensation. It's the same thing with SF's Prop B. As taxpayers, we are demanding a fair look.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 02, 2010 @ 9:29 am

When G passes you and the lefties will be left looking like leftovers. You obviously have no idea what you're talking about and never ride Muni so shut up. You're a joke as is your "paper."

Posted by Uninformed Blowhard on Oct. 02, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

lovely how we have deteriorated to the "hey they have something we don't, so let's pull them down too" model of democracy...while the guy at the top take it all...great job jeff/willie/matt the 3 stooges of sf politics...I'll surely walks preceints for you three again...

Posted by rondd5 on Oct. 04, 2010 @ 7:46 am

Ron, it is not like labor didn't have a hand in pummeling itself here, as the spread between what public sector union labor received and dwindling benefits in the private sector shouldn't have been a flashing red light.

Prop B is evil, Jeff Adachi needs to limp away from this election with political buckshot in his knees for consorting with billionaires against working folks.

In the future, labor needs to expand its horizons beyond its membership, taking the interests of all working folks into account. Otherwise, this is just the beginning.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Oct. 04, 2010 @ 10:07 am

"...lovely how we have deteriorated to the "hey they have something we don't, so let's pull them down too" model of democracy...while the guy at the top take it all...great job jeff/willie/matt the 3 stooges of sf politics...I'll surely walks preceints for you three again... "

Hey, if you have another idea as to how to pay an $800 million increase in employee benefit costs, we're all ears...

Posted by Guest on Oct. 04, 2010 @ 10:58 am

Don't be fooled. Public sector employees have both taken pay cuts, voluntarily, and suffered lay offs, causing our work loads to increase. We are simply a conventient scape goat for anti government anger being stoked by tea party activists who have no problem deficit spending so long as it is for endless wars and tax cuts for the very rich.

Posted by Francis on Oct. 04, 2010 @ 9:57 am

Speaking of being fooled, the voluteer "pay cuts" (actually a reduction in work hours) in the form of furlough days are temporary as are deferred wages (fire) and Prop B does not kick in until after they expire. Prop B has nothing to do with the Tea Party. The labor community has elected to stick its collective head in the sand and ignore the City's massive benefit cost increases in the near future. Choosing ignorance is not the fault of the taxpayer.

Continued luck with the misinfomation campaign...

Posted by Guest on Oct. 04, 2010 @ 10:53 am

Brucey needs to understand that there is a big difference between public-sector and private-sector unions.

Public-sector unions wield considerable and have won themselves great benefits over the past three decades. They retire young, retire well, and pay almost nothing for healthcare .

But realities are going to catch up to you soon. If I could get healthcare for $250 a month I would be thrilled. I'm paying $800 now.

The alternative down the road will be bankruptcy by the city of San Francisco. If you don't believe me, look at Vallejo.

Posted by Barton on Oct. 05, 2010 @ 6:55 am

dont you notice the slick adachi goes after health care and sneaks in pension reform on the back side. this is very misleading. these are apple and oranges and yet you people just followed the lead. city workers are constantly giving back. we are taking our furlough days. it would be nice to have a 9-5 job and see my kids grow up. i do not know why the private sector gets so upset with civil servants. while you are eating dinner or sleeping at night in your warm bed, we are out there late at night taking care of the city needs.. come on..

Posted by tommygun on Oct. 05, 2010 @ 9:01 am

It is a progrom against city workers!

Tommygun is totally correct.

We, city workers, have given back and given back and given back again and again and yet we get no respect.

Our pay is only about half of what we could get in the private sector, but we do it for the city because WE CARE.

And we get know thanks from the likes of Matt Gonzalez and the other neo-neo-conservatives.

Some of you all are brain-washed by capitalist dogma.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 05, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

@guest city worker,
there are few city workers who could actually get twice their pay in the private sector. you may be an exception.
many simply mark their time and hold the public in contempt, can't wait to get to lunch or to retire, milk the system for all it is worth, and complain constantly about how screwed up things are in their departments. few could be considered to give back and give back and give back. the city is a safe parking place, in many cases, for someone who does not want to rock the boat and actually deliver services commensurate with their pay. i see this daily in multiple departments. many actually undermine those who ARE doing the work and earning their pay. petty, back-biting jealousies and nasty behavior abounds. check out the building department, for example; or the housing authority; or parts of dpw; or some of planning; or.....
it is true that there are those city employees who go the extra mile, work late, deliver reports to staff and to the general public with professional humility, but those WHO CARE are rare. it is also important to understand the actual cost of a worker to an employer, not simply the wage that the employee takes home. the cost of a city worker to the city and county of sf is quite high and is on par with a private sector worker, in most cases.
it is past time to tighten our belts. vallejo was the canary in the coalmine for unfunded municipal obligatons.

Posted by yes on B; it's painful, but i did the math on Oct. 08, 2010 @ 4:32 pm