San Francisco Transit Fight

By Tom Wetzel

“Riders, don’t pay! Drivers, don’t collect!” That’s the slogan on tens of thousands of leaflets — in Spanish and Chinese as well as English — distributed in the campaign for the transit fare strike that began on September 1st in San Francisco — North America’s most bus-intensive city.

Muni — San Francisco’s bus and streetcar system — raised its adult cash fare to $1.50 as of September 1st. This is an increase of 50 percent since 2003. Muni also raised the discount youth/senior/disabled fare by 40 percent. The discount on tokens had traditionally been particularly beneficial to part-time workers for whom a monthly pass is not a good deal. On September 1st, Muni eliminated the token discount.

On September 24th, Muni began the second phase of the austerity measures — service cuts on most of the bus lines. To implement this, 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.

Two days before the service cuts, the fare strike groups and the Coalition for Transit Justice held a united press conference and speak out at the 16th and Mission BART station plaza. Speakers from the day laborers, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, the Chinese Progressive Association and other groups attacked the impending service cuts and supported the fare strike.

In a typical year there are an average of 270 public transit rides for every resident in San Francisco — the same level of transit usage 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 standing loads on many bus lines at various times of day. Loss of drivers will lead to 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 show up. 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 stress for the drivers. The fare strike has three demands: No fare hike, no service cuts, no layoffs.

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. At least 10,000 stickers were attached to poles and bus shelters throughout the city.

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. 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 corridors. 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.

Concentrating pickets and banners at key locations did give the fare strike visibility, but it also attracted a heavy security response. When I got to 16th and Mission at 8AM on September 1st, 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.

Meanwhile, small teams of fare strike activists were also 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.

Fare strike advocates have distributed about 8,000 leaflets with the demands of the fare strike but in the shape and graphic style of a Muni bus transfer, reproduced on the same flimsy newsprint. Riders liked these transfer-shaped leaflets which they could flash to the drivers.

The police claim this is illegal counterfeiting. 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. The police backed down but eventually a Muni fare inspector wrote Moe a citation.

On September 1st, at least a couple thousand passengers rode the buses for free despite the heavy police presence. Revenue reports obtained from Muni indicate that the daily cash flow to Muni on the first two weekdays of the fare strike dropped to $150,000 from an average of $169,000 in the three weekdays prior to the strike. By September 9th the average daily cash intake had risen to $168,000 — a poor showing for a tactic designed to increase Muni’s revenue. Muni management hopes this will be made up by increased sales of monthly passes. The jury is still out on that claim.

The Corporate Free Ride

With nearly 50 million square feet of office space compacted into San Francisco’s city center, the 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 profitable office and retail uses. The vast capital value of downtown as a corporate headquarters and financial and retail center greatly depends 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 corporations pay nothing special for this. Corporations are externalization machines — they systematically work to shift their costs onto others.

In 1994 a 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 city leaders left 20 percent of the driver and mechanic positions vacant for five years. Overcrowding and unreliability were the result. To prevent an increase in their taxes, the downtown 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 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. Rescue Muni has supported the fare hikes in 2003 and 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. The MTA Board is in charge. Without their own source of information, they are putty in the hands of Muni’s 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 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 year’s struggle on Muni began in February with Muni announcing a projected $57 million deficit. Management’s initial 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 Coalition did gain some concessions. Muni management backed off on their proposals for a hike to the price of the monthly pass and charges for transfers, and reduced the proposed fare hike to $1.50. However, 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. The fare hike would raise this from $12 to $15.

The Coalition then tried to get the Supervisors to overrule the MTA Board. 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 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 have been able to cooperate and coordinate their efforts.

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 action. For the first several months, the Social Strike group focused its efforts on outreach to the drivers, trying to build a rider/driver alliance.

The 2000-member drivers’ union, Transport Workers Union Local 250A — largely workers of color, includes the largest group of unionized African-American workers in San Francisco. Social Strike 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 sees the current Muni struggle as part of a larger conflict with the “corporate rich.”

Because of these quotes, McGruder and Grayson were brought up on charges by the executive board of Local 250A, 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 have varied. Some drivers have played by the 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, the driver told them “Why pay? Today is the fare strike.” Activists also report that some drivers put their hands over the fare box to encourage non-payment by riders.

The fare strike requires intensive work by dozens of activists. The strike has already lost momentum and visibility as activists pursue other claims on their time. Muni management is hoping to ride out the storm. A weakness of the fare strike has been the absence of a broader organizational framework to bring together ordinary riders who might want to be involved in the fight at some level.

And what about the longer run? If the consciousness-raising of the fare strike campaign were used to build a mass riders’ organization controlled by its members — a democratic Muni riders’ union — the struggle could be continued by other means after the fare strike (marches, jamming government meetings, etc). At least a militant minority of working class Muni riders would have an organizational vehicle through which to self-manage their on-going struggle with Muni management and the downtown elite. The pressure could be maintained. But an effort to form a Muni riders’ union has not yet gotten off the ground.