The MUNI Saga : How Did We Get Here?

When I moved to San Francisco 5 years ago, I thought I was moving to some liberal Mecca. The kind of place filled with smug and hybrid cars. Where hippies ran free. Where tenants were unevictable. Where diverse cultures intermingled in harmony.

At the time, I’m not even sure I was happy about it. I grew up in a fairly conservative household. In a way, moving to San Francisco scared me a little bit. I wasn’t moving here for political reasons. I was moving to San Francisco because it is the Industrial Design capital of America. Most of the places I thought I wanted to work were headquartered here. It seemed dumb not to move.

Now, I was moving from Richmond, VA. The former capital of the Confederacy. When I arrived in San Francisco, I expected to experience culture shock. I did not. Sure, the food was typically much healthier. Fast food restaurants were scant. You couldn’t smoke in bars. You could drink in the park. There was a much larger LGBT community. There were far more homeless people. People smoked weed in public. But, neighborhoods were still incredibly segregated. And bars still closed at 2am.

Those are all somewhat superficial issues. They may be representative of larger ideological differences, but they seem to be the result of the city’s distant past rather than current ideology. Perhaps the most shocking similarity came when I finally entered the professional world. This is a similarity so fundamental and counterintuitive that I still find it baffling. This is the perception many San Francisco citizens have the public employees that serve them.   

For those who are unfamiliar, San Francisco relies primarily on three distinct forms of public transit. Within the city, we have MUNI which operates buses, cable cars, streetcars, and the light rail. For slightly longer distances, we have BART, a subway and heavy rail system that connects San Francisco to neighboring cities. Finally, we have Caltrain, which covers even longer distances south from San Francisco, through Silicon Valley and past San Jose.

Idiotically, these three forms of transit are independently owned and operated. BART is a state agency(thanks Reddit). MUNI is run by the city of San Francisco. Caltrain is run by something called the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. It is a total clusterfuck. Each system independently negotiates contract terms with their employees. As a result, public transit in the Bay Area is constantly disrupted because of contract disputes.

Often times, both sides have legitimate concerns in these disputes. Employees would like to earn enough money to live and prosper within the city that they serve. The transit organizations want more flexibility and to stop losing money. These seem like legitimate concerns to me. Every time these contract disputes happen, the managers at Muni post some outrageous numbers regarding the salaries of a few MUNI operators. These earnings typically involve insane amounts of overtime pay. This is supposed to, and does, fuel public distaste for operators. The thing is, this outrageous overtime pay is not the fault of the operators. It is the fault of poor management.

This is a symptom of the Bay Area transit system as a whole. The system is poorly managed on all fronts. Vehicles are rarely on time. They are typically overcrowded or completely empty. There appears to be no logic to the system. To the casual observer the “N” train, which is MUNI’s most popular, seems to have the fewest trains. This is insane. By every standard I can think of, MUNI does a poor job serving the public. It does so while constantly cutting services and raising prices.

Operators are the primary public interface for MUNI. They receive all of the vitriol passengers have for the system. They also receive all of the credit when things go well, but let’s be honest, that never happens. So, anytime something goes wrong with the MUNI system the public blames the operators. Instead, we should be blaming the management.

The current dispute between operators and management is not the key issue I have. Nor is it the most interesting part of this conversation. I am interested in the the perception that many San Franciscans have of transit operators. We seem to believe that operators do not deserve the pay and benefits that they already have, much less the improvements they typically push for during contract negotiations. I don’t understand this.

The argument from detractors seems to be one of the following;

1. “I have a college degree. A MUNI operator does not, yet he gets paid as well or better than I do.”

2. “I do not have a job that requires a degree and neither does a MUNI operator. Why does he get paid more than me?”

3. “I have a college degree. A MUNI operator does not, but he gets paid way too close to what I get paid.”

On some level, each of the arguments have make sense and have merit. What I don’t understand is the next cognitive step most of these detractors take. They could say, “Hey, I should push to get paid more because, based on what MUNI operators get paid, I deserve it.” Instead they say, “Hey, MUNI operators get paid too much. Let’s push them down to my level or a level I’m comfortable with.”

How did we get to this point? Why do we want to push ourselves down instead of raising ourselves up? I can completely understand why people in positions of authority would feel this way. They want to get as much done with as little money as possible. If they have to pay their employees better, they can accomplish less with the their budgets.

So what? This is the same mentality that drove American manufacturing to China. American companies didn’t want to pay their employees a living wage, so they went somewhere they didn’t have to. It was good business, but immoral. If a company can’t afford to pay it’s employees the salaries they deserve, then it shouldn’t be allowed to stay in business. It’s that simple.

It the long run, paying a fair wage will probably not cost jobs, but it will decrease salaries at the top and profit margins for shareholders. If they are given the choice between decreasing profits or disappearing, most companies will choose decreasing profits. Here’s the thing, the people at the top will still make insane amounts of money... just slightly less insane than they do now.

What amazes me is that management has done such a good job at convincing employees that this perspective is what is best for employees. It isn’t. Workers in this country are receiving far less compensation, while managers and shareholders are getting far more. It is this attitude and approach that is fueling the increasing gap between rich and poor in this country.

I think this way of thinking comes from the last glimmer of hope in the American dream. We like to think that if we are just talented enough and work hard enough that we will make it into the top 1% of wage earners. So, we tend to look at economic policy as if we were at the top. As if we have achieved our dream, because you know, we deserve it. We put in the time, the energy. We played the game.

Sadly, this is not the case and it never was. This system we live in is not merit based. It is a lottery and the lucky few (that came from money and influence) have 1000x the number of tickets as you or I.   

We are asked work harder, longer and more efficiently, yet we receive less. And we have been convinced that this is how it should be. What happened to us? Is this something that can be reversed? Should it?


And now for some good ol' California punk rock to brighten your day:



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