What’s Next for Muni After Sickout?

What’s Next for Muni After Sickout?
KQED News Staff | June 2, 2014

Passengers board a San Francisco Muni bus on March 7, 2007 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
By Don Clyde and Mina Kim
Commuters in San Francisco are scrambling to find alternative transportation or enduring the sometimes hourlong wait for a bus as this morning’s operator sickout drags on into the evening.
Two-thirds of San Francisco’s Muni fleet, or about 400 vehicles, remain sidelined tonight, as bus and rail operators show their anger over the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s proposed labor contract. Muni has some 700,000 boardings per day.
Muni is barred from striking, but Michael LeRoy, professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois College of Law at Urbana-Champaign, says sickouts effectively have the same effect as strikes. He spoke with KQED’s Mina Kim on Monday.
“They function very much like a strike,” LeRoy said. “It is a withdrawal of labor by workers, and it’s meant to put pressure on the employers. In that sense it’s a de facto strike.”
The SFMTA will deny pay to operators who called in sick on Monday if they cannot prove they were ill. But LeRoy says management can take additional action against them if they can’t prove they were ill.
“In the current agreement, which is expiring this month, there is a provision for management to count an absent-without-leave as a disciplinary event, and that would result in a two-day suspension,” LeRoy said. “A second violation within an eight-month period would have a 10-day suspension.”
S.F. Muni Facing Day Two of Operator 'Sickout'

“So if management wants to fight fire with fire, they have the tools at their disposal within the contract to do it,” LeRoy said. “The question is: Would they want to take it that far, because given the number of people who are allegedly engaged in the sickout – you could be looking at essentially putting a majority of your workforce on a fast track toward termination.”
LeRoy said it appears this case will move to arbitration.
“If the parties don’t conclude an agreement in the near future, the contract will expire and then ‘interest arbitration’ is provided,” LeRoy said. “That term means that an arbitrator writes new terms of the contract. That arbitrator doesn’t write from whole cloth. The arbitrator is presented with an argument from the union, an argument from the employer and typically the arbitrator picks one offer over the other.”
Muni workers are not happy with a proposed contract that would give an 11.25 percent raise over two years, but requires them to contribute 7.5 percent into their pensions, which are paid by the SFMTA.
LeRoy said today’s walkout raises the same kind of issues that arose during the BART strikes and in other public sector labor disputes.
“States don’t have money. Municipal governments don’t have money to fund pension benefits,” LeRoy said. “So from the workers’ perspective, the pay raise is essentially going in one pocket and out the other to fund their pension, and in their view they’re not getting a raise, they’re just simply being asked to absorb the cost of their retirement.
“From the employer perspective, they can’t afford it. So these are going to being enduring kinds of issues, and there’s no real relief in sight.”