Volume , Number
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
San Francisco Transit Fight
Riders, dont pay. Drivers, dont collect. Thats the slogan on tens of thousands of leafletsin Spanish, Chinese, and Englishdistributed in the campaign for the transit fare strike in San Francisco.
Muni, San Franciscos bus and streetcar system, raised its adult cash fare to $1.50 as of September 1. This is an increase of 50 percent since 2003. Muni also raised the discount youth/senior/disabled fare by 40 percent and eliminated the token discount. On September 24, Muni began the second phase of its austerity measures with service cuts on most of the bus lines. To implement this, layoff notices were issued earlier in the year to 150 drivers. Muni management eliminated 83 of these jobs through early retirement. This meant a loss of good-paying unionized jobs. For the rest of the job cuts, they fired all of the part-timers.
Two days before the service cuts, fare strike groups and the Coalition for Transit Justice held a press conference and speak out at the 16th and Mission BART station plaza. Speakers from the day laborers, St. Peters 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 Franciscothe same level of transit usage as New York City. But in San Francisco three-fourths of the rides are on electric and diesel buses. 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. Thus the fare strikers have three demands: no fare hike, no service cuts, no layoffs.
More than 50 people actively organized for the fare strike, with new groups endorsing the effort. At least 10,000 stickers were attached to poles and bus shelters throughout the city. On the morning of September 1, the fare strike groups concentrated most of their people at about eight major nodes in the Muni bus network in the Mission Districts main street retail centerthe heart of San Franciscos Latino community. With over 85,000 rides on a typical weekday, Mission-Van Ness is one of the worlds busiest bus corridors. During the last two weeks of organizing, day laborers had gotten involved in the fare strike campaign and had taken over the tabling and leafleting areas in the city with large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Concentrating pickets and banners at key locations gave the fare strike visibility, but it also attracted a heavy security responseabout 20 cops, virtually the entire Muni inspector force, and a squad of Muni security assistants, i.e., temporarily employed young people, mainly African Americans, outfitted in bright green vests.
Meanwhile, small teams of fare strike activists were also surfing the bus lines in various neighborhoods. Theyd get off at a busy stop and then lead by example, bringing on groups of people to ride for free. Their hope was that people would get comfortable with the idea and then do it on their own.
Fare strike advocates distributed about 8,000 leaflets with the demands of the fare strike, but in the shape and graphic style of a Muni bus transfer. The police claimed this was illegal counterfeiting.
At least a few 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 days prior to the strike.
The Corporate Free Ride
With nearly 50 million square feet of office space in San Franciscos city center, the employment pattern of San Francisco is downtown-centered. The vast capital value of downtown as a corporate headquarters and financial and retail center greatly depends on Munito 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.
Munis structural deficit first became evident in the mid-1990s when city leaders left 20 percent of the driver and mechanic positions vacant for 5 years. Overcrowding and unreliability were the result. To prevent an increase in their taxes, the downtown elite imposed 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 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 Franciscos ongoing gentrification, meant that there was 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 supported the fare hikes in 2003 and 2005 and provided a mass base for SPURs 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 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 and the MTA Board is in charge.
Management empire building has been one result of Prop E. While cooking up ambitious expansion plans, much of the professional staff was moved out of rent-free, city-owned office space into expensive digs on Market Street, paying rent of $53 a square foot. For a few years during the dot-com boom, Munis 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 years struggle began in February with Muni announcing a projected $57 million deficit. Managements initial proposal was a huge attack on the ridersa $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 win 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 needed eight votes to reject the entire MTA budget. One of the Coalitions groups, Families in SROsa group of Asian women and Latinas who live in residence hotels with their kidstrooped to city hall to lobby the supervisors. In July, however, the supervisors voted 8 to 3 to endorse the Muni fare hike, service cuts, and layoffs.
The 2,000-member drivers union, Transport Workers Union Local 250Alargely workers of colorincludes the largest group of unionized African American workers in San Francisco. The Social Strike group was able to hook up with the Drivers Action Committee (DAC)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 the DAC was 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, Muni couldnt implement its proposed service cuts.
On June 17 Bari McGruder and Victor Grayson, two African American bus drivers active in DAC, were quoted in the San Francisco Examiner to the effect that the leadership of TWU Local 250A was in bed with management. They were quoted as calling for a one-day walkout. Grayson 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 3 years. This action threw the dissidents in the union on the defensive. It appears that the unions April call for non-cooperation with the general signup wasnt enforced, as the sign up for the reduced service schedules has apparently gone 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 didnt 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 reported 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. As of this writing in early October, the strike has already lost momentum 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 riders who might want to be involved in the fight at some level.
In the long run, if the consciousness-raising of the fare strike campaign were used to build a mass riders organization controlled by its membersa democratic Muni riders unionthe 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 ongoing 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.
Tom Wetzel has worked as a typesetter, college teacher, and technical writer. Hes been an activist since the late 1960s, mainly on labor, housing, and public transit issues. He is currently president of the San Francisco Community Land Trust.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.