Tuesday, June 14, 2011

S.F. Muni Workers—Screwed by the Arbitrator and Their Union

San Francisco bus and rail drives overwhelmingly (944 to 488) rejected a sellout contract negotiated by their union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250 and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA or Muni), forcing the dispute into arbitration. However, the arbitrator declared that the rejected agreement will become the drivers’ binding contract for the next three years, according to the Bay Citizen.

It is terrible that workers are being forced to work under conditions they rejected. However, let’s consider how this state of affairs came about. The arbitrator, Carol Vendrillo, was also the mediator who helped formulate the rejected contract. Thus, she had an interest in seeing the contract come to fruition and had no business being the arbitrator, who should have been an objective third party.

Another problem is that Vendrillo overstepped her role as arbitrator, which was to determine whether or not a contract between Muni operators and their employer was valid. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Vendrillo who said, "It is the opinion of the mediator/arbitrator that the terms of the (proposed contract) on the disputed issues represent the best resolution of these protracted labor negotiations and are in the best interests of both the parties and the riding public," (emphasis added by Modern School).

I empathize with the riders. I ride Muni myself, now and then. However, the contract is between the drivers and Muni, not between the drivers and the public or between Muni and the public. Vendrillo had no business considering the public’s needs.

While the public’s needs are irrelevant to the contract, they are very relevant to the business of operating a transit system. However, Muni has been overpriced and provided lousy service for generations. Many regions of the city have never had adequate service. Saving the system money by increasing the use of part-time drivers, one of the union concessions in the new contract, will not improve these issues. Nor will revising the disciplinary, grievance and accident-review provisions—another union concession in the new contract. In fact, the arbitrator's decision to remove the outside, neutral process for evaluation of accidents, mechanical safety of the fleet, and health and safety of the schedules, will likely decrease safety and increase delays due to equipment malfunction.

Vendrillo’s concern for the public is suspect, not only because of her deliberate weakening of safety provisions, but because the public is not the main beneficiary of the transit system. The overwhelming majority of Muni riders are employees who need to get to their jobs, and consumers who need to get to the businesses they intend to patronize. So a more honest statement from Vendrillo would have been, “this contract is in the best interests of the business leaders who would lose lots of money in the event of a strike.” Indeed, a strike by transit workers can turn into a de facto general strike precisely because so many businesses depend on public transit to get their employees and customers to their businesses.

A Sad State of Affairs Created Entirely By the Union
So what are the choices for Muni drivers? They could accept the contract, go back to work, and move on with their lives, a choice their union leaders clearly favor, or they could refuse to accept the contract and go on strike. However, a strike would be illegal, as their previous contract had a no-strike clause, something that many unions voluntarily accept in exchange for binding arbitration.

Why do so many unions fight for binding arbitration, even at the expense of giving up the right to strike? They argue that binding arbitration can force bosses to respect the conditions of the labor contract. Bosses routinely violate their own labor contracts and get away it. Unions then have to spend time and resources grieving the violations and/or organizing their members to take a job action in protest, requiring more time and resources. Unions really don’t want to engage in job actions. They’re risky (the union might lose) and difficult to maintain (workers cannot afford to stay off the job very long) and sometimes result in expensive lawsuits.

On the other hand, arbitration is also a big risk. As we can see from the SFMTA example, an arbitrator can, with the stroke of a pen, completely undermine a union’s vote and collective bargaining rights. If you to look at in terms of risk analysis, workers have a pretty good chance of losing in arbitration, considering that arbitrators are much more likely to have a pro-business and pro-government bias than a pro-labor one. Once a decision goes before an arbitrator, the workers have no more control over the matter. In contrast, workers not only have much more control over strikes and job actions, but these are the only consistently effective tools they have for defending their interests in the workplace. For these reasons, workers should never give up the right to strike.

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