San Francisco School Bus Drivers
United Transportation Union (UTU) Local 1741 represents San Francisco Unified School District bus drivers and support personnel. The local has about 250 members, and developed out of a militant struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, from which an excellent contract was won for drivers, including a living wage, health care benefits, and decent working conditions. While the union retained its progressive politics, over the years participation had dwindled. A baker's dozen core of activists carried the local's day-to-day work.
In its forthcoming round of contract bargaining, the union sought to achieve pay parity for office and support workers and to restore income for drivers who lost income as a result of major rescheduling that had taken place two years earlier. Like most good unions, in the past, Local 1741's leadership had surveyed their members, held a series of meetings on major contract issues, and then proposed a package of bargaining demands to their rank and file, who waited to see what their leaders would "deliver" when the company got serious at the negotiating table.
We introduced an alternative approach that we dubbed "people-first, problem-focused bargaining," and proposed that, rather than hold the most important issues to the end of the summer, they be put on the table at the beginning. Rather than focus on the details of contract language, our approach zeroed in on the most urgent concerns of the members--what they said they would be willing to fight for. Rather than a technical exercise, bargaining would be a mass participation process--an exercise in building and demonstrating power. "People-first, problem- focused" meant that through worker testimony, the union would present the real problems faced by members and their families and invite management to join them to develop solutions to these problems. High-priority concerns would be first because stalling or rejection by management would lead to a summer buildup of what would become a major campaign involving workers, teachers, parents, and community and labor movement allies.
In one-to-one meetings, then in small workshops with coworkers, members shared the impact on their lives of losing as much as a quarter of their wages (because of rescheduling of runs) and other problems. As might be expected, there were dramatic personal effects which, for the most part, workers had never discussed with one another out of shame, guilt, a feeling of inadequacy, or simply because they felt it was a burden to be borne privately. Out of these discussions came the realization that "we're all in the same boat"-that while personal situations were unique, there was a common pattern and a common source for their problems. From this grew righteous anger and a profound sense of common fate and resolve to collectively remedy the injustices each had experienced individually as a private personal burden.
In the first negotiation, ninety-seven workers greeted management. When the thirteen-member bargaining team was introduced, Jim Harford, the union's principal officer, insisted that every member introduce him/herself. After half a dozen had done so, Laidlaw Bus Company's lead negotiator irritably commented to an associate, "This is going to take all morning." Susan Moorehead, the local's president, responded, "No, this is going to take all summer. Get used to it." That set the tone for what unfolded over the next few months.
At the next negotiating session, attended by 110 workers, more than twenty of the drivers, dispatchers, and yard and office workers told stories about what the cuts in pay and other inequities meant to them and their families. The stories were powerful: Some had lost their homes and had to move far away from expensive San Francisco, commuting over an hour each way to work. Some had furniture or cars repossessed. Parents were no longer able to enroll kids in music or other after-school programs, send them to summer camp, or take a family vacation. Others were unable to take care of elderly dependent parents.
After the first person testified, there was little reaction among the Local 1741 members who were present. By the third testimonial, there was a scattering of applause. By the end, speakers were given a standing ovation. The private troubles of members had become a public issue, something over which they could collectively struggle with their employer.
The strategy also called for clear responses from management: Either there would be a serious commitment to resolve problems or, if not, the union would devote the whole summer to mounting a public campaign for a just settlement. This approach required the union negotiators to polarize the positions on issues, forcing either a "yes" (which would be a victory) or a "no" (which would mean a fight) from management. Negotiators would turn any other response (what we called "mush") into a "no".
"Draw-the-line" bargaining offers employers a clear opportunity to indicate that they want to work with their workers or, on the other hand, to demonstrate they are unwilling to work with them. When an employer, by a "no," indicates the latter, workers become angry--especially if they witness what happens at the negotiating table, where management often exhibits arrogance in addition to indifference. That anger can be turned into energy to mount a protracted campaign to bring the employer back to the table on different terms--for example, "good faith bargaining." Drawing the line at a "no" clarifies (or polarizes) the situation. It also personalizes it, substituting actual members of management for the abstract Laidlaw Corporation. Polarization and personalization are important ingredients in conflict tactics. In their absence, it is very difficult to generate the energy necessary for a mass struggle.
For several reasons, the negotiating committee consistently failed to engage in "draw-the-line" bargaining. Management and a federal mediator took advantage of this reluctance to shift the bargaining to a more traditional approach. With summer drawing to a close, no settlement had been reached, forcing members to confront the challenge of whether to strike on the first day of school. In a series of conversations, in which we mostly asked questions, members concluded that a strike could boomerang against them, as angry parents had to find alternative ways to get their children to school. Instead, members agreed to an intensive campaign to reach out to teachers, parents, and neighbors to build community support for their demands for justice. After a short drive, and with a thousand postcards indicating support in hand, a large delegation of workers appeared before the school board, denounced management's intransigence, and repeated the stories of family pain they had told Laidlaw's negotiators.
Rallies and informational picketing were launched. Workers reached out to religious and other community leaders who attended support rallies and expressed solidarity. The contract struggle took place in the context of a bitterly fought local election between Labor Council-endorsed incumbent Mayor Willie Brown and Tom Ammiano, gay community leader, progressive populist, and president of the city/county board of supervisors. Among the union's ranks, there was substantial support for both. Instead of endorsing one or the other, the union asked each to support its struggle.
In a "final offer," the company sought to divide the middle-seniority workers from others by offering some groups something while giving nothing on the costly issue of lost hours. The union's negotiating committee refused to recommend the contract to a well-attended membership meeting that shortly followed negotiations. But the union's leaders feared that the divide-and-conquer tactic would work. It did not. The sharing of stories that had begun the negotiating process, and active--even if limited--involvement of members throughout the summer created strong relationships and deep bonds of solidarity between workers that the company could not break. Workers with eight-hour guaranteed routes spoke up for their fellow members with lower seniority. Drivers also refused to abandon the relatively smaller number of dispatchers and office and yard workers. By a vote of 147-10, the membership rejected the contract, began informational picketing of the bus yard, and authorized a one-day work stoppage shortly before the local mayoral election.
Faced with the prospect of a school bus driver strike on the eve of a hotly contested election, both candidates sought to demonstrate they were a true "friend of labor." Ammiano attended a union rally to express solidarity. Brown called both parties to his office to mediate the dispute. He was in a position to put substantial pressure on management to settle the dispute because he had the support of most of the business community and organized labor, and had considerable influence over the school board.
In "the yard," incredible energy was created out of the emerging solidarity among workers who clearly understood that Laidlaw could either guarantee more hours or make a serious commitment to create more work--by securing more charter business, for example. A settlement was reached shortly after Brown won the mayoral election.
The contract dramatically exceeded the union leadership's expectations at the start of negotiations. Members were deeply involved in the entire process. Even at its nadir, rank-and-file member participation in negotiations never declined to less than a dozen, with the vast majority involved in some part of the struggle. The resulting contract restored some hours to workers and made significant gains in key problems identified by workers at the start of negotiations.
In July 1999, Local 1741 Chairman Jim Harford wrote,
Had you asked me three or four months ago if we would have more than 80 percent of our summer driver membership attending our first two negotiating sessions with our employer, Laidlaw Inc., I would have thought you were wrong if not a little crazy. Had you asked me then if our local would be on the road to substantially increasing member participation and overcoming internal divisions based on race/ ethnicity, years of driving (and therefore income), age, and other internal sources of conflict I would have said, 'You are wrong.' But that is happening as well.
Speaking of the Renewal Project's impact, Harford said:
Concepts presented by PLR have made it possible for me to better understand why we haven't been able to get participation on the part of our membership in our union. My juices are stirring because I see hope for rebuilding our local.... We've got higher morale in our core leadership. There is more unity among our leaders. Active leaders are excited.
And of the impact on his local's members, "They are participating in new ways, excited and gaining a new sense of pride in their union and stepping forward to take greater responsibility for the local. New leadership is beginning to emerge from the membership."
Despite this testimony, at the end of the contract campaign it was decided by Local 1741's leadership not to continue with the renewal process. Jim Harford had moved on to an assignment with his national union. Other leaders thanked us for our work with them, but did not want to continue. Later in this article we will discuss why.
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